Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (1994) – 1

This is an outstanding book, bubbling over with ideas and insights on a subject which is as relevant today as when it was written back in the early 90s. It’s actually the book of a BBC TV series. In 1993 Ignatieff and his five-man TV crew travelled to Croatia and Serbia, recently reunified Germany, Ukraine, Quebec, Kurdistan, and Northern Ireland to see at first hand what was already being heralded as the rise of a new kind of virulent nationalism following the end of Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union.

The text he’s produced is the extreme opposite of the two books of journalism about the Rwandan genocide which I’ve just reviewed, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998) and Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995).

What irritated me about those books was that the authors had travelled widely and had unparalleled access to loads of eye witnesses and key officials and yet were incapable of coming up with a single useful idea about what they had seen. The best Gourevitch could manage was repeated references to the Bible story of Cain and Abel and the best Keane could come up with at the very end of his book was the pathetic injunction ‘that we do not forget’ (p.191).

This is because they are journalists, paid to get to the trouble zone, report what they see, what people say, and leave it that. The lack of intellectual content worth the name explains why I find books by even very good journalists like John Simpson or Robert Fisk disappointingly empty of ideas.

By contrast, Ignatieff is a trained historian and political scientist, who has held a dazzling array of positions at academic institutions around the world, including a PhD from Harvard and senior research fellowship at Cambridge, before his writing and teaching became more involved with political theory, international law and human rights.

The result is that this book, although essentially a collection of travelogues and interviews just like Gourevitch and Keane’s, overflows with brilliant, invaluable insights into the origins and nature of the chaotic new nationalism and ethnic conflicts which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the imperial duopoly which had run the world from 1945 to 1990 (otherwise known as the Cold War).

Right at the start of the book, Ignatieff takes all he’s learned on his journeys and boils it down into a set of principles and insights which are laid out in his ten-page introduction. I think these ten pages are among the most intelligent things I’ve ever read on any subject. Here’s a summary.

Blood and Belonging

As it passes beyond a UN-held checkpoint in Pakrac between Serb- and Croat-held territory in the former Yugoslavia, the crew’s van is stopped by drunk Serbian paramilitaries who insist they are spies because they saw them talking to Croatians, and are about to hijack the van and drive it off who knows where, maybe to shoot them all, when one of the UN soldiers intervenes, persuades the drunk Serbs out of the van, and lets them drive on their way.

This was the moment in my journeys in search of the new nationalism when I began to understand what the new world order actually looks like: paramilitaries, drunk on plum brandy and ethnic paranoia, trading shots with each other across a wasteland; a checkpoint between them, placed there by something loftily called ‘the international community’, but actually manned by just two anxious adolescents… (p.2)

When the Berlin Wall came down Ignatieff, like other cosmopolitan liberals of his type, thought it heralded a new era of  freedom and justice. This is because (as I keep banging on) Ignatieff and his class do not realise what a tiny tiny fraction of the world’s population they represent – highly privileged, affluent, super-well-educated, international liberals gaily flying around a world mostly inhabited by resentful peasantries crushed by poverty and trapped in failing states.

He says the Cold War was really an extension of the era of European imperialism but in which the world was ruled not by half a dozen European nations but by America or Russia. Cold War terror i.e. the fear of nuclear armageddon, produced peace and stability, of a sort. The fall of the Berlin wall signalled the end of this final phase of Western imperialism. But it wasn’t followed by a blossoming of civic nationalism of the sort Ignatieff and his fellow liberals hoped for (‘with blithe lightness of mind’), for the very simple reason that most people are not sensitive liberal playwrights like Vaclav Havel.

What has succeeded the last age of empire is a new age of violence. The key narrative of the new world order is the disintegration of nation states into ethnic civil war; the key architects of that order are warlords; and the key language of our age is ethnic nationalism. (p.2)

Three levels of nationalism

As a political doctrine, nationalism is the belief that the world’s people are divided into nations, and that each of these nations has the right of self-determination, either as self-governing units within existing nation states or as nation states of their own.

As a cultural ideal, nationalism is the claim that while men and women have many identities, it is the nation which provides them with their primary form of belonging.

As a moral ideal, nationalism is an ethic of heroic sacrifice, justifying the use of violence in the defence of one’s nation against enemies, internal or external. (p.3)

In the contexts Ignatieff is looking at, nationalism is about violence.

Nationalism is centrally concerned to define the conditions under which force or violence is justified in a people’s defence, when their right of self-determination is threatened or denied. Self-determination here may mean either democratic self-rule or the exercise of cultural autonomy, depending on whether the national group in question believes it can achieve its goals within the framework of an existing state or seeks a state of its own. (p.3)

Civic nationalism versus ethnic nationalism

Nationalisms talk a lot about ‘the people’ and sometimes invoke ideas of ‘democracy’ but this is deceptive, since ‘the people’ often turns out not to include a lot of the people who live in a particular area, in fact the exact opposite, it turns out that ‘the people’ refers to a restricted and highly defined set. To clarify this, Ignatieff defines another two types of nationalism.

Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic because it vests sovereignty in all of the people. (p.4)

Ignatieff says this concept of civic nationalism was pioneered in Great Britain which by the mid-eighteenth century consisted of a nation state united by a civic and not an ethnic definition of belonging i.e. shared attachment to certain institutions: the Crown, Parliament, the rule of law.

Admittedly this was a civic model restricted to white, (straight) male landowners. The history of nations characterised by this kind of civic nationalism, such as the UK and USA, can be seen as one in which during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those excluded groups fought for full civic inclusion.

As a result of their struggle, most Western states now define their nationhood in terms of common citizenship and not by common ethnicity. (p.4)

The other type of nationalism is ethnic nationalism. This is typified by Germany. When Napoleon occupied the German principalities in 1806 he unleashed a wave of patriotic fervour. German poets and politicians argued that it was not the state which created a people – since they did not then possess one unified state – but the people, the ethnic group, the Volk, which forms the state. Instead of the cold logic of the Napoleonic code with its abstract insistence on ‘rights’, German writers across the board insisted a nation was made out of feeling, a feel for and love for the people’s language, religion, customs and traditions.

This German tradition of ethnic nationalism was to go on and reach its acme in the hysterical nationalism of Hitler and the Nazis. But Ignatieff points out that it was this form of ethnic or cultural nationalism – not the civic nationalism of Britain or France – which inspired intellectuals in all the countries of Eastern Europe which, in the nineteenth century, were controlled by foreign empires (Poles and Ruthenians and Baltic peoples by the Russian Empire; Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire; Croats by the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Sociological realism

Which of these two types of nationalism, civic or ethnic, is a more realistic reflection of actual societies? Which has more sociological realism?

Of these two types of nationalism, the civic has a greater claim to sociological realism. Most societies are not mono-ethnic; and even when they are, common ethnicity does not of itself obliterate division, because ethnicity is only one of many claims on an individual’s loyalty. According to the civic nationalist creed, what holds a society together is not common roots but law. By subscribing to a set of democratic procedures and values, individuals can reconcile their right to shape their own lives with their need to belong to a community. This in turn assumes that national belonging can be a form of rational attachment.

Ethnic nationalism claims, by contrast, that an individual’s deepest attachments are inherited, not chosen. It is the national community which defines the individual, not the individuals which define the national community. This psychology of belonging may have greater depth than civic nationalism’s but the sociology which accompanies it is a good deal less realistic. The fact that, for example two Serbs share Serbian ethnic identity may unite them against Croats, but it will do nothing to stop them fighting each other over jobs, spouses, scarce resources and so on. Common ethnicity, by itself, does not create social cohesion or community, and when it fails to do so, as it must, nationalist regimes are necessarily impelled towards maintaining unity by force rather than by consent. This is one reason why ethnic nationalist regimes are more authoritarian than democratic. (p.5)

You can see why civic nationalism is harder to create than ethnic nationalism because it depends on two things: strong, functioning, well-established and long-lasting institutions, and an educated population. The UK has both, having had universal primary school education for 150 years, and a complex web of long-running institutions like the monarchy, Houses of Parliament, an independent judiciary, local governments, courts, police forces and so on. It has taken a long time and successive generations of hard-working, selfless public servants, politicians, activists and reformers to achieve the current state of British civic nationalism, and nobody agrees it’s perfect. In fact everybody has an opinion about where it is still far from perfect and what needs to be reformed. But all this exists within a broad framework of civic nationalism, namely everyone agrees that all British citizens are equal and entitled to equal rights.

1. Ethnic nationalism is easier

Compared with the complexity of mature civic societies such as Britain, America or France, you can see how ethnic nationalism is simpler: a certain ethnic group seizes power and defines itself and its members and rests its power precisely by who it excludes: everyone not part of the ruling ethnic group who quickly find themselves being attacked as traitors, then rounded up and imprisoned.

Leaving all morality to one side, you can see why government by ethnic nationalism is always going to be quicker to define, set up and manage, especially in states which have little if any experience of the complex web of power centres, rules and traditions which make up civic nationalism.

On this reading it should come as no surprise to anyone that ethnic nationalism, being the quicker, easier option, should be the one opted for by rulers who suddenly find themselves liberated from the rule of imperial masters and with big complicated countries to run.

Roughly speaking, this explains what happened:

  • in the early 1960s in Africa, when the newly liberated post-colonial nations found they had to be ruled somehow and in the absence of the deep-rooted institutions and traditions required by civic nationalism, reverted to authoritarian rule often based around the ruler’s ethnic group, which led to numerous wars of independence fought by ethnic groups who wanted their own nations, for example Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in Congo, and the long-running war of independence in Eritrea
  • in the early 1990s in eastern Europe, where the new rulers of the 15 or so nations freed from Soviet hegemony discovered that the quickest way to establish and consolidate power was with forms of nationalism which invoked the supremacy of their people, their Volk, by shared allegiance to language and religion instead of to the more abstract institutions of civic nationalism, a creed which led to actual civil wars in the former Yugoslavia and Ukraine
  • in the early 2010s, when a raft of Arab countries threw off their long-standing dictators but found that, instead of automatically transitioning to civic nationalism as so many day-dreaming liberals hope, promptly plunged into chaotic civil wars based on ethnic or religious allegiance, most notably in Libya and Syria

The tendency to authoritarianism and extremism of government by and on behalf of ethnic majorities explains the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. In countries based on ethnic nationalism, the most extreme nationalists have a nasty habit of floating to the top and then, in situations of stress – such as the invasion and war in Rwanda or the famine in Sudan – they resort to the most extreme form of ethnic nationalism imaginable, which is the sustained attempt to exterminate everyone who doesn’t belong to the ruling ethnic group.

2. Ethnic nationalism fills a political vacuum

When the Soviet empire and its satellite regimes collapsed, the nation state structures of the region also collapsed, leaving hundreds of ethnic groups at the mercy of one another. Since none of these groups had the slightest experience of conciliating their disagreements by democratic discussion, violence or force became their arbiter. (p.6)

So ethnic nationalism flourishes where there is no tradition of democratic discussion and no experience of the (admittedly often complex and sometimes borderline corrupt) bargaining involved in democratic politics.

3. Negative reason for ethnic nationalism – avoidance of fear

The sense of belonging to an ethnic group within a nation based on ethnic nationalism has many aspects, positive and negative. The most obvious negative one, is the escape from fear. In a society falling to pieces, you are afraid of everyone. This fear is considerably lessened if you know you can at least trust everyone of your own ethnic group. In this respect, ethnic politics are an improvement on a state of total anarchy, where you can’t trust anyone.

In the fear and panic which swept the ruins of the communist states people began to ask: so who will protect me? Faced with a situation of political and economic chaos, people wanted to know who to trust, and who to call their own. Ethnic nationalism provided an answer which was intuitively obvious: only trust those of your own blood. (p.6)

Belonging, on this account, is first and foremost a protection against violence. Where you belong is where you are safe; and where you are safe is where you belong. (p.6)

This was the very important conclusion which came out of the many books I’ve read about the Weimar Republic and the chaotic social and economic situation of so much of continental Europe between the wars. The scared human animal prefers security to freedom. Given a choice between the politician who promises a crackdown on lawlessness, a return to order and stability, with the temporary curtailment of some human rights, and the politician who insists on the primacy of human rights but can’t promise anything about the economy, jobs and violence on the streets, people will always vote for the former. This explains why in the economic and political mayhem between the wars, almost every European nation ended up being ruled by authoritarian or out and out fascist governments.

4. Positive reasons for ethnic nationalism – belonging

That’s the negative aspect, escape from fear of anarchy. But there are also numerous positive aspects of ethnic nationalism which Ignatieff encapsulates as the sense of belonging.

At Oxford Ignatieff studied under Isiah Berlin (wow) and quotes him here to the effect that to be among your own people is to be confident that you will be understood, without having to explain. It is to feel at home among people who share the same language, catchphrases, jokes and references, love the same music, can quote the same national epic and so on.

‘They understand me as I understand them; and this understanding creates within me a sense of being someone in the world.” (quoted page 7)

This explains why the issue of language is so central to disputes in ethnic nationalism over the centuries. If the ‘official’ language, the language of street signs and government forms, is not the language you speak, then quite clearly you are not at home. Hence the issue of which language street signs are in can end up being a matter of life or death.

It also explains why so many of the ethnic nationalists Ignatieff meets are so sentimental. In Croatia, Ukraine and Belfast he met members of violent paramilitaries who showed a consistent tendency to get maudlin drunk, burst into tears or burst into rousing renditions of their national anthem or rebel songs. Sentimental kitsch is the characteristic art form of ethnic nationalists. (He nowhere mentions it, but the idea of a self-pitying, over-armed, drunk sentimentalism reminded me of a certain type of nostalgia for the Confederacy in the American South.)

5. Irresponsibility

There’s another positive aspect of the kind of ethnic nationalism he describes, which is its irresponsibility. Time and again in his journeys he talks to militiamen, paramilitaries and their political leaders, and finds them all saying the same thing: it’s not our fault. This avoiding of responsibility takes at least three forms: 1. it’s all the other side’s fault. 2. we’re the victims. 3. it’s all history’s fault.

Their fault

Again and again, drunk, self-pitying militiamen explain it was the other side who started it, we’re the victims in all this, we only took up arms to protect ourselves, to fight back. Ignatieff doesn’t mention the Rwanda genocide because it hadn’t taken place when he made his tour, but this is exactly the excuse made by every Hutu nationalist interviewed by Philip Gourevitch or Fergal Keane: ‘The Tutsis started it, the Tutsis used to lord it over us, the Tutsis invaded our country: so that’s why we have to exterminate every Tutsi we can find, even the grandparents and the little babies. Why can’t you understand?’

We’re only protecting ourselves

Same view given to Ignatieff about why the Serbs had to bomb Sarajevo, in a siege which went on long after he’d left, in fact from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. Lasting 1,425 days, this made the siege of Sarajevo the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting three times as long as the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the siege of Leningrad. Talk to any Serb commander and they would patiently explain that they had to surround and bombard the city for 4 years in order to protect themselves.

History is to blame

All the militias knew far too much history. From the UDA and IRA in Belfast to the Serb and Croat militias, all these people know far too much about their country’s histories and the histories they know prove they are right. This disproves two great liberal nostrums which I’ve always queried:

  1. Those who ignore their own history are condemned to repeat it. Rubbish. It’s almost always the opposite, it’s the Serbs nursing their grievances going back to the Yugoslav civil war of 1941 to 1945 or, if you like, going all the way back to the famous battle of Kosovo in 1389, it’s the Croats nursing their grievance against wartime Chetniks; or the IRA celebrating their long tradition of martyrs or the UDA nursing endless grievance at the way they’re betrayed by the London government. For all these groups their history is a history of grievances and carefully tending it and memorising it traps them in the prison-house of their nationalist narratives and condemns them to repeat the same conflicts over and over. (It is in this spirit that James Joyce made his famous declaration, leaving Ireland to its endless squabbles in order to make a new life abroad, that ‘History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.’ Ethnic nationalists relive and re-enact the nightmare day after day but can never exorcise it.)
  2. History will prove us right. Rubbish. History is as contested as contemporary politics i.e.  historians will argue about the significance and legacy of this or that event till the cows come home and very often are swayed by simple professional motivation i.e. the need to come up with a new angle, ‘shed new light’ and so on. The notion that there will eventually emerge one unanimous version of history is a fantasy.

But back to the main theme, blaming history is a way of avoiding taking responsibility yourself. Hence the drunken mumbling of some militia Ignatieff interviews that ‘history is to blame’. This is cognate with the white liberal guilt over empire which drives Gourevitch and Keane to lay blame for the Rwandan genocide on the Belgian authorities for introducing ethnic identity cards in the 1930s and thus hardening the divide between Hutus and Tutsis. This is where the objective study of history topples over into the crowd-pleasing activity of naming and blaming, of which there is no end.

6. Ethnic nationalism as career path = warlordism

Intellectual categorisation of ethnic nationalism risks overlooking another really obvious factor in the rise of ethnic nationalism, which is that it offers a career path to supreme power for men the world had otherwise overlooked and, especially, for latent psychopaths:

Nationalist rhetoric swept through these regions like wildfire because it provided warlords and gunmen with a vocabulary of opportunistic self-justification.

The anarchy of a collapsing state presents terror to most civilians but career opportunities for those brave and amoral enough to seize them. Hence warlordism, a version of the mafia. Local strong men emerge who dominate their area, who rule through fear and intimidation and violence but, if you are of the right ethnic group and follow the rules, they also bring peace and certainty. Which is why Ignatieff is taken on a tour of his fiefdom by one such local strongman and is impressed at the way his open-top car is greeted by cheering crowds, women offering their babies to be kissed, local businessmen giving him gifts.

Some people might find this easiest to understand this as a kind of mafia rule, but it reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and its depiction of a Dark Age Europe made up of a patchwork of very localised regions ruled over by thousands and thousands of warrior kings who ruled by dint of winning battles and distributing loot to their soldiers. It’s this kind of historical perspective i.e. the unchanging link between Europe 500 AD and 2000 AD, which makes me think human nature, and the kind of social structures it creates, over and over again, in all times and places, doesn’t change very much.

Ethnic nationalism within civic states

Obviously, you can have ethnically chauvinist movements within civic nationalist societies, and this would include the movement for Catalan independence in Spain and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, who themselves spawn their opposites, Spanish nationalists within Catalonia, and the special case of the Unionists within Northern Ireland.

Cosmopolitanism and privilege

Finally, Ignatieff addresses the issue of his own perspective and makes the one cardinal point that I have made hundreds of times in this blog which is that cosmopolitan intellectuals have proved to be wrong, wrong and wrong again about the world they live in.

He devotes a fairly long passage to explaining why. He and his ilk of jet-setting intellectuals thought the rest of the world was like them, an associate professorship at Harvard, a research fellowship at Cambridge, a year-long teaching placement in Paris. Winners of life’s game flying round the world on expense accounts, eating out at fine restaurants, knowledgeable about wine and poetry. He and his friends thought the world was set to become ever-more cosmopolitan, ever-more multicultural, ever-more relaxed about race and ethnicity.

But Michael was the son of a Canadian diplomat, who moved his family around the world to different postings, so young Michael grew up naturally cosmopolitan, speaking numerous languages. He was sent to a top private school in Canada where he acquired the elite education and psychological confidence to feel right at home discussing definitions of liberty with Isaiah Berlin. Just like BBC correspondent and superstar Fergal Keane attended the leading boys private school in Ireland, works for the impeccably liberal BBC, and found himself at a complete loss to explain the Rwandan genocide.

Neither of them can comprehend the anger of being an outsider, the all-consuming rage caused by being a member of the poor, the exploited, the repressed, the ignored, the downtrodden, the humiliated, the shat-upon, the mocked and the ridiculed, told they are losers and deserve to be losers for the whole of their lives…

And how – when society starts to fall apart, when there’s an economic collapse, when an invading army turns everything upside down – then it’s your turn to get your revenge, to get your own back, to show them all you aren’t a slave and lackey to be ignored and humiliated but a man, a real man, a strong man, who can click his fingers and have whole villages exterminated, who can hold the life or death of prisoners in the palm of his hand, who distributes the pickings from the looted houses among his followers, likewise the kidnapped women and keeps the best for himself.

Neither Fergal nor Michael have a clue what that must feel like and so simply can’t comprehend what motivates so many of the ordinary soldiers, militiamen and paramilitaries they meet to carry out the murders, gang-rapes, tortures and massacres which their books describe.

But the big difference is Michael is aware of it. Not just aware, but places his own self-awareness of his privilege and ignorance within a dazzling intellectual, political and historical framework which does an enormous amount to clarify, define and help us understand the broader sociological and political causes of the new world disorder.

He acknowledges that the ‘privilege’ he has enjoyed is the reverse side of the coin of the plight of most people in the world. During the Cold War most of the world was divided up into American or Soviet spheres of influence, and these paymasters acted to restrain, up to a point, the behaviour of their clients in countries around the world. But when the Cold War ended, this support and this restraint disappeared from scores and scores of countries where fear of the Cold War master had kept an uneasy peace.

As a result, large sections of Africa, Eastern Europe, Soviet Asia, Latin America and the Near East no longer come within any clearly defined sphere of imperial or great power influence. This means that huge sections of the world’s population have won ‘the right to self determination’ on the cruellest possible terms: they have been simply left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, their nation states are collapsing, as in Somalia and in many other nations in Africa. (p.9)

So, with the imperial police withdrawn from large parts of the world, ethnic rivalries and enmities which had been kept bottled up for generations, could burst out anew: Yugoslavia. Rwanda. The new chaos only appears inexplicable to Ignatieff and most of his readers because they don’t grasp the fundamental geopolitical realities and, more importantly, are limited in their understanding, by their sociological situation.

Globalism in a post-imperial age only permits a post-nationalist consciousness for those cosmopolitans who are lucky enough to live in the wealthy West. It has brought only chaos and violence for the many small peoples too weak to establish defensible states of their own. (p.9)

And:

It is only too apparent that cosmopolitanism is the privilege of those who can take a secure nation state for granted. (p.9)

And:

A cosmopolitan, post-nationalist spirit will always depend, in the end, on the capacity of nation states to provide security and civility for their citizens. (p.9)

Thus when Keane gets into a tricky confrontation with border police, he can play his BBC and British government card. When Gourevitch gets into a tight spot, he can point out he’s an American and his government probably supplies arms to whatever ramshackle militia he’s dealing with. Or both can buy their way out of trouble with dollars, which the BBC or the New Yorker can provide by the suitcase full in order to rescue them. Both dip their toes in the chaos of failed states confident that they always can, if push comes to shove, buy their way out and get on the next plane home.

Neither of them seem to appreciate what it means to be someone who grows up in a society where there is no escape and where ‘kill or be killed’ is the only law and which has been drummed into you since childhood.

Ignatieff makes the dynamite point that many of the most senseless killings and brutal murders can be understood if you grasp the idea that they are fighting and murdering in order to bring a full, final and complete peace to their countries so that they can enjoy the same sense of security and safety which Gourevitch, Keane and Ignatieff have taken for granted all their lives.

Summary

It is Ignatieff’s mighty achievement to not only have created a conceptual framework which makes sense of the panorama of post-Cold War anarchy, extracting core principles and ideas which shed light on every aspect of the new nationalism; and not only to deliver high quality intellectual insights about all the conflicts this book goes on to investigate; but also to deliver an unblinking, candid and winning analysis of his own privileged position, which makes him such a fantastic guide to the new world disorder of the 1990s.

Credit

Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff was published by BBC Books in 1993. All references are to the revised 1995 Vintage paperback edition.


The new world disorder

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and the countries of eastern Europe and central Asia were freed from Soviet tyranny, many Western politicians and commentators optimistically thought this marked the end of history and the dawning of a golden era of peace and democracy. Well, as any fool could have told them, they were wrong, very wrong.

Instead, relieved of the threat of socialist parties and movements (which found themselves suddenly deprived of moral, political and sometimes financial support by the Soviets) a new more virulent form of neo-liberal capitalism triumphed around the world. Workers and even middle classes in the developed world found their living standards steadily declining, and entire third world countries found themselves being exploited even more effectively by an international capitalist system evermore focused on supporting the lifestyles of westerners and a new class of international global super-rich.

Lacking political maturity (i.e. established democratic systems with a track record of the peaceful transition of power from one elected administration to another; the multifarious aspects of civil society  such as a free press, charities) many newly liberated nations, afflicted with economic stress, political instability and unresolved nationalist-ethnic-border issues, not surprisingly, experienced major problems.

The specific causes were different in each case but instead of an outbreak of peace, love and understanding, the 1990s saw the Gulf War, the collapse of Somalia, civil war in former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide, to name just the highlights.

The Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/11 added a whole new layer of misunderstanding and confusion to an already chaotic world, leading directly to the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and subsequent destabilisation of the entire region. And was followed by the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 which, once again, naive liberal commentators welcomed as an outbreak of democracy and equality but almost immediately led to chaos, civil war and the rise of regional warlords, in Syria and Libya to take the two most notable examples.

New world disorder reviews

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch (1998)

‘Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.’
Eighth of the Hutu Ten Commandments published by Hutu Power propagandist Hassan Ngeze in 1990 (page 88)

Disappointment

Simon’s law of book-buying states that the more you spend on a book, the more likely you are to be disappointed. Nothing has brought me as much pleasure as picking up a copy of my childhood favourite, The Town That Went South by Clive King, for 30p in a National Trust second-hand bookshop a few years ago. By contrast, I paid full whack to buy We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families and almost immediately took against it.

The shiny cover of the Picador paperback somehow belies the fact that it was published in 1998 and so is nearly a quarter of a century old.

Next, the introduction by Old Etonian and Conservative Party leadership contender Rory Stewart is reasonable enough but offers no insights or ideas. In fact it opens with disappointing stupidity. His very first sentence is: ‘Is genocide a suitable subject for literature?’ to which the obvious answer is, ‘Yes, everything is a suitable subject for literature’. More specifically, ‘Yes – have you not heard of Holocaust literature?’ Literature about the killing fields of Cambodia, about the Armenian genocide, and so on? So it’s a non-question asked for purely rhetorical effect.

And finally, Gourevitch’s book itself is also disappointing because, although it contains a lot of good quality history of the background and buildup to the genocide, of the events of the genocide itself, and then a detailed account of the aftermath up until late 1998 when he completed his text, and although it contains interviews with a phenomenally large number of representative figures – it is continually interrupted by Gourevitch’s own meditations on the nature of genocide, what we should feel about genocide, whether we can write about genocide, the difficulty of imagining genocide and so on, which are uniformly poor quality, entry-level, GCSE-level. Trite ideas padded out with lame and obvious quotes. It is a big disappointment. Gourevitch may be a terrific reporter but he’s no intellectual.

The tone is set in the puzzling first chapter where Gourevitch retails a conversation he had with a pygmy (one of the aboriginal inhabitants of the region now known as Rwanda, who were swamped by later Bantu incomers and now make up about 1% of the population). This conversation delivers the  thumpingly banal message that humanity is one and needs to be united in its struggle against nature. This is the ‘insight’ message Gourevitch chooses to open his long book about the Rwandan genocide with, i.e. not very insightful at all, certainly not worth paying £10 for.

With a sinking feeling, I realised within a few pages that this book was not going to offer much insight into politics or human nature. In fact, in the passages where he tries to ‘think’ about the genocide, Gourevitch’s banal meanderings tend to blanket and dull the impact of the horrifying facts he sets down so powerfully in the factual passages.

The second disappointment is that a major part of the book’s USP is that it contains interviews and conversations Gourevitch had with scores of Rwandans from all parts of the country, from all classes and professions, Hutus and Tutsis, which go to create an impressive mosaic, like the walls of photos I’ve seen in some art installations, hundreds of photos of ordinary people caught up in a nightmare. Hence the book’s sub-title, Stories from Rwanda.

But I’m sad to report that these stories, also, partake of the general disappointment because they, also, are often surprisingly dull and banal. Obviously, many of the interviewees describe horrifying scenes: they describe entire lives lived in the shadow of the ethnic conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi populations, they describe the repeated crises in the 1960s and 70s, when small-scale pogroms, massacres and localised ethnic cleansing broke out for one reason or another; then they describe the atmosphere of fear created by the RPF invasion of 1990 and the emergence of really vitriolic Hutu supremacism, the advent of magazines and radio stations calling for the complete extermination of the Tutsis; and then describe gathering round their radios to listen to the dreadful news that the moderate Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane had been shot down as it came into land at Kigali airport and the terrible sense of doom most of them felt.

And then, of course, Gourevitch includes eye-witness account of going into hiding, being arrested, trying desperately to contact family members, watching people being shot, hacked to death with machetes, driving through smoking villages, coming across streets full of bodies, terror and despair.

The content of these stories is, of course, gripping and horrifying. But the style is uniformly flat. They all sound the same, they all speak very simply. Either that’s because all Rwandans sound the same, very simple and flat. Or because all Rwandans are dull and boring. Or maybe because every interview had to be carried out through an interpreter, since most Rwandans speak French, and French has less lexical variety than English and that’s why everyone comes out sounding the same. Or maybe it’s because all the testimony has been first translated, and then put through Gourevitch’s own style machine. All the interviews are made up of suspiciously complete sentences. There are no hesitations or repetitions or stumblings. All Gourevitch’s interviewees speak in perfect and grammatically correct sentences. They all sound the same and they all sound boring.

He even manages to make Paul Kagame sound boring, which is quite a feat. Paul Kagame was born and raised a Rwandan exile in Uganda. He volunteered to join the Ugandan army, rose quickly through the ranks, studied military theory, was a senior officer in the rebel force which helped Yoweri Museveni overthrow the Ugandan dictator Milton Obote. Kagame then went on to become a co-founder and eventually leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which invaded north Rwanda in 1990 and fought the Rwandan army to a ceasefire in 1993. Kagame was still working through implementation the peace accords he signed with the Hutu president Juvénal Habyarimana in August 1993, when the latter’s plane was blown out of the sky in April 1994. This was the trigger for Hutu Power extremists in the government to launch their genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, so Kagame immediately resumed the RPF incursion into Rwanda, quickly seizing large parts of the country, taking the capital Kigali on 4 July 1994, then pushing west to conquer almost the entire country and putting an end to the genocide by 17 July 1994.

Kagame then took up the twin roles of vice-president and defence minister in the post-genocide government, but everyone knew he was the real power in Rwanda, which he has gone on to lead down to the present day, 2021, when he is still serving as president.

Kagame is described by analysts as a military leader of ‘genius’ for turning the RPF from a ragtag of half-armed volunteers into a highly disciplined and effective military force (p.218). And then, after all this, he went on to be the military and strategic brains behind the alliance of armies, the AFDL, which invaded east Zaire in 1997 to close the Hutu refugee camps where Hutu Power génocidaires had been regrouping and preparing for genocide part two. This was the incursion which led to the AFDL marching all the way to Kinshasa and overthrowing Zairean dictator Joseph Mobutu.

In other words, Kagame is one of the most fascinating characters of the late 20th/early 21st centuries and Gourevitch has had the privilege of interviewing him not once but on numerous occasions. And yet, in Gourevitch’s hands, this is what Kagame sounds like:

“I have wanted to be original about my own thinking, especially in regard to my own situation here. Not that I don’t realise that there are other people out there to admire, but it is just not my habit to admire anybody. Even if something has worked, I think there are many other things that could work also. If there’s anything else that has worked, I would certainly pick a bit from that. But if there could be another way of having things work, I would like to discover that. If I could have some original way of thinking, that would be OK for me.” (quoted on page 213)

Pretty dull, eh. It’s far too harsh to say that Gourevitch is a lightweight and he makes everyone he interviews sound like a lightweight, but that thought did cross my mind during more than one of the duller interviews in the book.

He’s spoken to literally hundreds of people, including many key players and all kinds of experts and aid and UN officials and yet…hardly any of them say anything interesting. Only towards the end did some of the Rwandan officials complaining about the utter ineffectualness of the international community make an impression.

A literary account, alas

Gourevitch is a longtime staff writer for New Yorker magazine and a former editor of The Paris Review. He knew nothing about Rwanda or African politics before he watched the shocking images on the TV news as the Rwanda genocide broke in spring 1994. Fascinated and appalled he realised he had to find out more (or realised this was a terrific opportunity for an ambitious journalist looking for a subject for a book).

So Gourevitch began visiting Rwanda in 1995 (p.7) and over the next two years made nine trips to the country and to its neighbours (Zaire, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania) to report on the genocide and its aftermath. He made 6 trips lasting a total of 9 months (p.185). During that time he interviewed hundreds of people from Rwanda and the neighbouring countries and the book contains an impressive number of first-hand, eye-witness testimony from many, many Tutsi survivors, as well as more confrontational interviews with men accused of complicity or of organising particular local massacres.

Possibly his lack of background in African affairs partly explains the air of hopeless bewilderment he exudes right from the start. In the opening sections of the book Gourevitch goes heavy on his inability to imagine the events, on the importance of imagination in our lives, his interest in how people imagine their identities, on the importance of the narratives which shape their lives. In other words, he brings a heavily literary slant to his huge and complicated subject.

On the first page of his text he mentions Charles Dickens, on page 3 he is citing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there are epigraphs from George Eliot and John Milton. Directly after that limp quote from Kagame which I cite above, Gourevitch says it reminds him of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writing on love and art (p.213).

Oh dear. It is going to be literary journalism, the worst sort, the type of journalism which spends a lot of its energy emphasising the author’s own sensitivity, which foregrounds his own emotional responses, to the subject matter, rather than doing a journalist’s job which is to get on and tell you what happened and let interviewees tell their own stories, preferably without a load of editorialising about how you everything you find out about the horrors makes you feel. In the showbiz world of American journalism, ruined by the egotistical displays of Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe in the 1960s, it is acceptable to put the author and his responses at the centre of the story, but I wanted a history, I wanted to know the facts, not reiterations of how a pampered New York journalist was appalled to discover how brutal life  is in much of Africa and how thoughtlessly cruel human beings can be.

His factual sections are sensational but when he stops to reflect on it all, Gourevitch writes quite a lot of stupid things. When he writes that ‘Power is terribly complex’ on page 78 I suddenly realised I was dealing with an idiot. My daughter learned more about political, social and cultural power in her GCSE Sociology course than Gourevitch displays in this entire book. All the ‘reflection’ in the book displays a disappointingly low knowledge of political theory, knowledge of international relations, or philosophy about human nature.

And I was irritated by his casual assumption that the ‘we’ he continually refers to are all white, liberal, college-educated, East Coast readers of New Yorker magazine, that ‘we’ all share his over-developed moral scruples and his severely under-developed sense of world affairs, geopolitics, African history and politics. Right at the beginning he tries to implicate the reader in his sensitive moral scruples:

I presume that you are reading this because you want a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. (p.19)

Well, er, no. I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Rwandan genocide in the same way that I am not disturbed by my interest in reading about the Holocaust, or the Second World War, or the First World War, the Somme, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the American Civil War, the Tapei Rebellion, the rape of Nanking, the Gulag Archipelago, the Russian Civil War, the Ukraine famine, the Partition of India, Islamic State, the Crusades, the decimation of the Incas and Aztecs, the violent rise of Islam, the blood-soaked fall of Byzantium, the life and massacres of Genghiz Khan. I could go on…

I am reading this book because I want to be better informed about human history which, as anyone who has even a superficial knowledge of the subject knows, amounts to an unrelenting series of wars, massacres, genocides and bloodbaths. I’m kind of used to it.

So, no, I am not in the slightest disturbed by my curiosity to want to understand a recent historical event better. Seems perfectly normal to me, and most of the history books I read include passages where historians say the public in general ought to be more aware of history. In addition, many progressive historians and commentators tell us we need to get out of our Eurocentric frame of reference and understand more about the wider world and places beyond London or Paris. So that’s why I’m reading a book about Africa, and about one of the most striking events in post-war African history.

Gourevitch’s comment betrays a basic…what…dimness, obtuseness, ignorance…about the entire subject of History and why people would want to study it, which is to find out what happened, to try and understand why it happened, in order to better understand the forces at work in the world around us, now, in the present.

The facts

The book consists of three elements:

  1. Gourevitch’s self-consciously literary fretting over the power of imagination and the importance of narrative and the centrality of stories and the difficulties of human identity and a familiar checklist of progressive, liberal arts issues
  2. interviews with scores of Rwandans, UN officials, foreign doctors and aid workers, politicians and so on, giving often harrowing descriptions of their experiences or clarifying the political situation in Kigali, in the UN, in the aid camps in Zaire
  3. actual historical facts

When he sticks to the facts, Gourevitch is very good indeed. Suddenly, about a third of the way into the book, after the kind of maundering speculation I’ve been slagging off, it changes tone dramatically and becomes a riveting account of the early history of the country, a description of the colonial era when the Belgians divided the two ethnic groups of Hutu and Tutsi the better to control them, and how this ethnic division, once created, went on to dog the Rwanda, which won independence in 1962 but continued to suffer repeated outbreaks of ethnic violence, pogroms and massacres (the massacres of 59, of 61, of 63, and so on).

In what follows I extract the facts Gourevitch gives and supplement them from other sources to try and create a comprehensive and useful timeline.

Rwandan history

In 1994 Rwanda had a population of about 7 million. Relatively small, it was the most densely populated country in Africa. About 85% of the population were Hutus, 14% Tutsis and 1% pygmies known at the Twa.

Rwanda is divided into five provinces: Kigali, Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western.

Because they were illiterate, no Rwandans before the arrival of Europeans had ever written anything down. Therefore, their prehistory relies entirely on unreliable oral traditions and speculation. Modern archaeology tentatively suggests that the hilly region was inhabited by pygmies as long ago as 8,000 BC, before it was slowly infiltrated from 700 AD by Bantu tribes from West Africa who went on to form the Hutus, and by ‘Nilotic’ ethnic groups from the north who were ancestors of the Tutsi (p.49). Maybe.

Hutus and Tutsis

For centuries before Europeans arrived, the Tutsis were nomadic cattle rearers, which made them wealthier than the Hutu majority who were mostly static farmers; the ruler of Rwanda was a Tutsi and the aristocratic Tutsis looked down on the peasant Hutus.

The regime was essentially feudal: Tutsis were aristocrats; Hutus were vassals. (p.49)

Although there’s a racial stereotype that the Hutus are full-on ‘negroid’ African in appearance while the Tutsis have narrow faces, with narrow noses and thin lips, in reality scores of generations of interbreeding meant the majority of the population didn’t conform to these stereotypes and very often Rwandans couldn’t tell which groups each other belonged to (p.50). Plenty of the Rwandans Gourevitch talks to tell him they pass for one ethnic group when they in fact belong to another. In other words, it wasn’t such a starkly obvious divide as between blacks and whites. Many Hutus and Tutsis are indistinguishable.

Tutsi ruler Kigeli Rwabugiri reigned from 1853 to 1895 and expanded the kingdom to its greatest extent. He oversaw a society which was regimented and hierarchical, with layers of military, political and civil chiefs and governors, priests, tax collectors, sub-chiefs, deputy governors and so on (p.49). Divisions between Hutu and Tutsi were hardened, with the former obliged to perform forced labour for the latter.

When the Berlin Conference of 1884 to 1885 carved up Africa between the European imperial nations, Rwanda was handed to the Germans because they had explored the region, had missionaries on the ground, and nobody else wanted it (p.55). After Germany lost the Great War, Rwanda was combined with the neighbouring nation of Burundi and handed by the victorious allies over to Belgium, because they abut the huge Belgian Congo to the west. Belgium ran Rwanda from 1918 to 1962.

The Belgians hardened the ethnic division in the country by compelling every citizen to state on their identity papers which group they belonged to. This had the effect of crystallising a racial divide which had been far more fluid and flexible before.

The Hutu revolution

Throughout the century Hutu resentment at their inferior status simmered. With the advent of an educated class it found expression. In 1957 nine Hutu intellectuals published a Hutu Manifesto. Its full title was ‘Note on the social aspect of the native racial problem in Rwanda’ and it was ten pages long. The manifesto called for a ‘double liberation’ of the Hutu people, from the colonial oppression of the Belgians, and then from the racial oppression of the Tutsis. The manifesto called for the political disenfranchisement of the Tutsi, banning intermarriage between the two groups, and banning the Tutsi from military service.

1959 Hutu political leaders backed by elements in the Belgian administration overthrew the Tutsi monarchy (which had continued to exist throughout the colonial period) and replaced it with a republic. Violence against Tutsis spread across the country and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. (When many of these exiles returned with the triumph of the RPF government in 1994, they were referred to as ’59ers’.)

Independence 1962

Rwanda was separated from Burundi and the two countries gained independence on 1 July 1962. Tutsi militias raised among exiles, especially in neighbouring Uganda, staged occasional raids into Rwanda, which always led to reprisals by the Hutu government. In December 1963 a Tutsi raid led to Hutu reprisals in which tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred, in what one journalist called a genocide and Bertrand Russell declared was the worst massacre since the Holocaust. (This Russell quote crops up in Fergal Keane’s book on the genocide; it’s obviously one of those quotable quotes you get extra marks for in your GCSE essay.)

More than 336,000 Tutsi left Rwanda in 1964 to escape the Hutu purges. In 1972 Tutsi school students across the country were attacked, beaten, their houses torched. So large-scale massacres and pogroms came in waves.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burundi, it was the Tutsis who were in charge and in 1973 embarked on a pogrom of Hutus. As many as 100,000 were killed and a further 200,000 Hutus fled as exiles into Rwanda, where every one of their stories fed the fuel of anti-Tutsi anger.

The 1973 influx of Hutu refugees inspired the Rwandan president Grégoire Kayibanda to order his army chief of staff, Juvénal Habyarimana, to set up ‘committees of public safety’, which promptly set about massacring Tutsis. On this occasion the victims were ‘only’ in the hundreds, but as many 100,000 Tutsis fled abroad.

To summarise, Rwanda and Burundi have a long record of attack and counter-attack, profound ethnic antagonism and ethnic cleansing of the two groups which dated back before independence and flared up on an almost annual basis, with the Tutsi almost always being victimised, massacred, and fleeing the country in tens of thousands. The 1994 genocide was generations in the making.

Habyarimana’s coup 1973

In 1973 Rwanda’s army chief of staff, Hutu nationalist Juvénal Habyarimana, carried out a coup, overthrowing president Kayibanda and declaring himself president of independent Rwanda. Under his rule Rwanda became a totalitarian, one-party state in which every citizen was compelled to be a member of his MRND party and was required to chant and dance in adulation of the president at mass pageants (p.75). Habyarimana was to remain dictator of Rwanda for 21 years, kept in place by lavish aid from Western nations and in particular from his most loyal Western supporter, France. Naturellement.

Gourevitch makes the point that during the 1980s and 90s France channeled huge amounts of armaments to the Hutu government, up to and through the actual genocide; that French advisers helped the government at all levels; that French president Francois Mitterand’s son Jean-Christophe was an arms dealer who made a packet from the trade (p.89).

In 1986 the global price of Rwanda’s main exports, coffee and tea, collapsed, and real hardship for the majority of the population added to simmering Hutu disaffection. The racist, supremacist policies of Hutu Power spread like a virus, popularising the insulting term inyenzi or cockroaches for Tutsis.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) The Tutsis in Uganda

But so did the Tutsi fightback. It is important to understand the role played by Ugandan politics. In 1979 Tutsi exiles in Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). (It was initially known as the Rwandan Refugees Welfare Association and then, from 1980, as the Rwandan Alliance for National Unity (RANU)). It was formed in response to the persecution of Tutsi refugees by the regime of Ugandan president Milton Obote. Obote accused the Rwandans of collaboration with his predecessor, Idi Amin.

Tutsi refugees Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame had joined Yoweri Museveni’s rebel Front for National Salvation (FRONASA). Museveni had fought alongside Obote to defeat Amin in 1979 but withdrew from the government following Obote’s disputed victory in the 1980 general election.

With Rwigyema and Kagame, Museveni formed a new rebel army, the National Resistance Army (NRA). Their campaign to overthrow Obote’s government became known as the Ugandan Bush War.

Obote remained hostile to Rwandan refugees throughout his presidency and in 1981 forced RANU into exile in Kenya. In 1982 he encouraged local councils to force Rwandan refugees out of ordinary civil life and into refugee camps. When Rwandans attempted to cross the border back into Rwanda, the Habyarimana regime confined them to isolated refugee camps and closed the border to prevent further migration.

You can see why many Tutsi exiles found themselves in an impossible position and it explains why so many joined up with Museveni’s NRA with the aim of overthrowing Obote and restoring their rights within Uganda.

In 1986 the NRA captured Kampala with a force of 14,000 soldiers which included 500 Rwandans, some of them senior officers, among them Kagame and Rwigyema. Museveni was grateful for their support and relaxed all Obote’s laws discriminating against Rwandans.

But you can also see why their success in the Bush War led soldiers like Rwigyema and Kagame to  think they might launch a similar military attack against the consider an attack against Rwanda, with the aim of overthrowing the dictatorial Habyarimana regime, installing a moderate government and so allowing the Rwandan refugees inside Uganda to return home. And you can see why the new man they’d helped to power in Uganda, Museveni, would support such a move.

The Rwandan civil war 1990 to 1994

At its 1987 convention RANU renamed itself the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). After a small-scale incursion was repelled in 1989, a cohort of Tutsi soldiers within the Ugandan army deserted, along with uniforms, arms and ammunition and invaded north Rwanda in 1990. It was the right year, as the Cold War came to an end and Western powers abruptly ceased their support for African dictators like Mobutu of Zaire and Habyarimana of Rwanda and force them to instal multi-party democracies.

The RPF incursion developed into the Rwandan Civil War. (To give a sense of the relatively small scale of all this, the original Tutsi incursion numbered some 2,500 soldiers who effectively went AWOL from the Ugandan army, accompanied by some 800 civilians such as doctors and nurses.) The RPF were defeated and repelled by the Rwandan Army (bolstered by French troops flown in to prop up another notorious African dictator) and withdrew to the Virunga mountains where Paul Kagame, establishing himself as its paramount leader, led a very effective regrouping and reorganisation. He attracted funds and exiles, he imposed strict military discipline and turned the RPF into an impressive fighting machine. In 1991 they emerged from the mountains to conduct an effective guerrilla campaign, hitting military targets across the north.

Throughout this period Hutu Power stepped up their propaganda that the Tutsis were parasites on decent hard-working Hutus, exacerbated by the war which Hutus blamed on Tutsi invaders. The circle around Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, set up a propaganda magazine, Akura, edited by Hassan Ngeze, who developed into the Dr Goebbels of the regime and in December 1990 published a Hutu Ten Commandments mandating Hutu supremacy in all aspects of Rwandan life (p.87).

Propaganda claimed the Tutsis were an alien people, were not Christians, were fighting to gain dictatorial control of Rwanda, restore the old monarchy and reduce the Hutu majority to slaves. In 1992 Hutu Power ideologue Leon Mugesera made a much-reported and chilling speech calling on Hutus to send the Tutsis back to Ethiopia by river i.e. as corpses down the river Nyabarongo (pages 53 and 96). And throughout the war Radio Rwanda broadcast anti-Tutsi hate and there were sporadic anti-Tutsi pogroms around the country, in which thousands were murdered.

The RPF invasion ratcheted up the very anti-Tutsi hate they were set up to counter.

Fragile peace 1993

By 1992 Habyarimana had been forced to accept a measure of multi-party politics and had included politicians not members of his party in the cabinet. It was these opposition politicians who met with the RPF leadership and negotiated a ceasefire in July 1992, leading to face-to-face peace negotiations.

It’s vital to realise that the hardline Hutus, often referred to as the akazu (p.81) and linked with the extended family of the president’s wife, disapproved of Habyarimana’s willingness to compromise and negotiate. They began setting up parallel hard-line Hutu structures within the organs of state, the civil service, the media and the army. Historian Gérard Prunier names late 1992 as the time when the idea of a genocidal ‘final solution’ to kill every Tutsi in Rwanda was first floated among this group. It was led, ironically enough, by one of the new parties encouraged to form by Western pressure to set up a proper democracy, the Coalition for the Defence of the Republic (CDR).

When Habyarimana signed a treaty with the RPF in early 1993 promising a transition to a genuine pluralist democracy in which Tutsi rights would be respected the CDR refused to sign, organised nationwide protests and encourage anti-Tutsi violence in which hundreds were murdered. In response the RPF resumed hostilities, this time defeating the Rwandan army which hadn’t been paid due to the country’s deteriorating economy.

Ever-faithful France sent troops to bolster the Rwandan army. The numbers are tiny. Just the arrival of 400 well disciplined and trained French troops was enough to halt the RPF advance. Nonetheless the RPF came within striking distance of Kigali but Kagali overruled his senior officers and refused to take the capital, shrewdly pointing out that it would alienate his foreign backers and the Hutu population. Instead he declared a ceasefire and called for more negotiations.

On the Hutu side, factions arose in all the parties which allied themselves with what became known as Hutu Power. Each party split into a moderate faction which believed in some amount of political negotiation, and a ‘Power’ faction, which rejected compromise and stood for total Hutu supremacy (p.97). Youth militia wings of each of the parties emerged, including the Interahamwe meaning ‘those who attack together’, who had their origin in football supporters clubs (p.93).

Habyarimana began to realise that the Hutu Power militants were more his enemy than the RPF. After prolonged haggling over the make-up of the post-war Rwandan army, a formal peace treaty was signed on 4 August 1993 (p.99). A transitional government was to be set up with members from all the main parties. UN troops were flown in to supervise the treaty, while Hutu Power authorities began to plan a genocide. Four days after the signing a new radio station set up by the akazu, Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines, began broadcasting genocidal propaganda (p.99).

The general situation was not helped at all when president of Burundi, Melchior Ndadaye, who had been elected in June as the country’s first ever Hutu president, was assassinated by extremist Tutsi army officers in October 1993, leading to a Hutu uprising and a violent crackdown by the Tutsi army which left around 50,000 dead (p.101). The assassination reinforced the notion among Rwandan Hutus that the Tutsi  presented a permanent threat and that there could be no peace, not real long-lasting peace, until they were completely eliminated. This very fragile ‘peace’ lasted from August 1993 till April 1994.

Trigger for the genocide 1994

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying president Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi – both Hutus – was shot down as it approached Kigali airport, killing everyone on board. Hutu extremists blamed the RPF. The Hutu Power wing of the army, led by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, assassinated the next in line to civilian authority, the (Hutu) Prime Minister,  Agathe Uwilingiyimana, along with ten Belgian UN soldiers charged with her protection (who were tortured first, p.114), and immediately started to implement the campaign of slaughter which they had been developing for years. It was to be a ‘final solution’ to the Tutsi problem.

The RPF claims that Hutu extremists themselves murdered their own president because he was engaged in negotiations with the Tutsis i.e. was a moderate Hutu and seen by a ‘sellout’ by the extremists on his own side.

The very next day, 7 April, as systematic killings across the country began, Kagame warned he was abandoning the treaty and the RPF broke out of its base in the north, attacking into Rwanda in three directions. So the genocide took place against the backdrop of renewed invasion and war. The RPF slowly seized territory in the east, heading south. UN troops were stationed in the demilitarised zone in the north but were ordered to withdraw to their camps to avoid getting involved in the fighting.

You can see why the renewal of war incited the Hutu Power advocates to carry out the genocide with feverish haste, ordering their followers at local level to kill as many as possible as quickly as possible before either the RPF won or the international community stepped in. For Hutu Power, it was a race against the clock.

The genocide – 100 days in 1994

Between April and July 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Three key facts to grasp are that:

1. The Hutu Power extremists had been preparing for this day for years, had drawn up lists of every Tutsis in the country with names and addresses, had assigned local Hutu leaders to direct and manage the slaughter, and had plans to take over state radio The Hutu extremists set up a radio station, RTLM, and newspapers which circulated hate propaganda, urging people to ‘weed out the inyenzi‘, to broadcast messages of hate. In other words, it was all extremely well planned. The identity cards which every Rwandan had been obliged by law to carry ever since the Belgians introduced them in 1931 (p.56) now became death warrants for any Tutsi stopped by police, militias, at road blocks, in the street, stopped search identified and hacked to death with a machete.

2. Second thing is that Rwanda was unique in tropical African countries in having been, from before Europeans arrived, a highly hierarchical country, organised like a pyramid from each district up to the top of government. Habyarimana’s governing party, the MRND, had a youth wing called the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter, but they operated within a highly organised society. It was a very well-organised genocide.

3. French troops, fighting on the side of the Rwandan army, freed up resources which Colonel Théoneste Bagosora could redirect to speeding up the genocide (p.90). On the nights of 16 and 18 June French arms shipments were flown into Goma in Zaire and then ferried across the border to support the genocidal Hutu Power regime (p.155). Gourevitch writes of:

The French political and military establishment’s…blatant complicity in the preparation and implementation of the butchery. (p.155)

I was amused to read that as the RPF closed in a French military plane whisked Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe, the central figure in the networks of Hutu Power, the leading figure in the azaku, to safety back in the homeland of liberty, equality and fraternity. Vive la France!

Number killed

At least 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in just 100 days, making it the fastest mass killing in human history. People were slaughtered at a faster rate than even during the Holocaust. Some Tutsis, commentators and historians put the figure higher at 1 million, for example a Red Cross report published soon afterwards.

What’s Somalia got to do with it?

Six months before the genocide broke out American troops had carried out Operation Gothic Serpent, an attempt to take on the evil warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid.,who ruled Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, which led to the so-called Battle of Mogadishu on 3 and 4 October 1993 during which a black hawk helicopter was shot down and 19 American soldiers were killed and 73 wounded. Not just that. The American corpses were paraded through the streets, and filmed and the video footage beamed around the world. The world’s only superpower was humiliated.

This explains why, when trouble broke out in another faraway African state, the administration of President Bill Clinton desperately tried to ignore it, then downplay it. Gourevitch quotes the press conferences given while the genocide was being carried out in which the poor press secretary tried to explain the administration’s position that ‘genocidal acts’ were taking place but these didn’t amount to an actual genocide. Why the hair-splitting? Because if the Americans conceded it was a genocide, then they would be legally obliged under the Genocide Convention of 1948 to intervene. And Clinton refused under any circumstances to risk another Black Hawk Down humiliation. And therefore officials at every level of the administration were under strict orders never to use the g word.

A bit too neatly Gourevitch says that in May, as the genocide was in full swing, he was visiting the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which happened to have been opened by President Bill Clinton who made a speech repeating the museum’s motto Never Again. But not only did it happen again, and the American government was the number one reason that the West, the international community and the United Nations did not do more to stop it (as explained in detail on pages 151 to 154). Disgusting.

French involvement and guilt

By June the RPF, attracting more and more Tutsi recruits, controlled the east of Rwanda, had surrounded the key cities including Kigali. In the same month France launched Opération Turquoise in the west of the country, entering from bases in the Zairian cities of Goma and Bukavu and eventually controlling the western fifth of Rwanda in order to create a safe haven for refugees. The fact that many of these refugees were Hutus, fleeing the advancing RPF army, and included many Hutu Power administrators and officials, has led to claims ever since that the French in effect protected those responsible for the genocide.

From the moment they arrived, and wherever they went, the French forces supported and preserved the same local political leaders who had presided over the genocide. (p.158)

Throughout the genocide French military spokesman argued that it was a ‘two-way’ genocide, both sides were as bad as each other and sneeringly referred to the RPF as the Khmer Rouge. The French had many motivations. 1. To maintain hegemony over the widest possible area of francophonie. 2. To maintain its credibility with the other African dictators it supported. Hatred of the English. Hard though it is to believe, the French government opposed the RPF because they originated in English-speaking Uganda. French culture must be preserved even at the cost of supporting the largest genocide since the Holocaust. This was recognised as a factor in France’s support for mass murder by as senior figure as Paul Kagame:

‘If they wanted people here to speak French, they shouldn’t have helped to kill people here who spoke French.’ (p.160)

The permanent grievance of the history’s losers.

The signal achievement of [France’s] Opération Turquoise was to permit the slaughter of Tutsis to continue for an extra month, and to secure safe passage for the genocidal command to cross, with a lot of its weaponry, into Zaire. (p.161)

Scum. cf p.289 and p.325.

End of the genocide July 1994

By late June the RPF had surrounded Kigali and took the capital on 4 July, followed on 18 July by the major towns of the north-west, forcing the interim government into Zaire. The RPF victory ended the genocide as well as the civil war. By the end of July 1994 Kagame’s forces held the whole of Rwanda except for the Turquoise zone in the south-west.

The international community, the UN troops on the ground and the French had done fuck-all to halt the worst genocide since the Second World War. (To be fair, Canadian General Roméo Dallaire sent his superiors in New York advance warnings he had learned from high-placed Hutu dissidents that a really huge massacre was being planned. When they ignored his warnings and actively reduced the UN presence on the ground, he and his reduced forces were at least able to provide refuge for thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu at its headquarters in Amahoro Stadium, at other secure UN sites, and assisted with the evacuation of foreign nationals.)

Instead the genocide ended solely as a result of the military intervention of Paul Kagame’s RPF (p.143). (Mind you, you could make the case that the genocide only came about because of the sequence of events following the RPF’s initial invasion of 1990, designed to overthrow the ‘legitimate’ Hutu government. Academics, commentators and advocates of all sides can spend the rest of time assigning blame.)

Map showing the advance of the RPF during the 1994 Rwandan genocide (source: Wikipedia)

Aftermath – flight of the Hutus

As the RPF closed in the Hutu extremists prepared not just to flee the country, but used state radio and local authorities to terrify the Hutu population into believing they too, in their turn, would be slaughtered by vengeful Tutsis. Which explains why some two million Hutu peasants took to the road and fled west into Zaire, eventually setting up huge refugee camps as big as cities.

And indeed the RPF were accused of themselves killing thousands of Hutu civilians as they took power, and of pursuing and Hutus across the border in Zaire as they tracked down members of the notorious Interahamwe. The RPF denies this was intentional but Gourevitch has Kagame admitting certain rogue elements in his army may have carried out illegal revenge attacks. He tried to restrain them, some were tried and imprisoned, but there’s a limit to his control.

But the bigger story, which Gourevitch dwells on at length, was the creation of vast Hutu refugee camps which became cities in their own right, homes to countless businesses, run with fear and intimidation by Hutu Power administrators, and funded and supported by the international community and hundreds of well-meaning aid agencies.

Ethnic cleansing in East Congo 1995 to 1996

The resulting situation in eastern Congo became chaotic with Rwandan Tutsis tracking down and massacring Hutus, and Hutu extremists regrouping in the vast refugee camps helped by Western governments and aid agencies a) launching cross-border raids back into Rwanda to murder survivors and kill witnesses and b) embarking on their own campaigns of ethnic cleansing against ethnic Tutsis who had lived in Zaire for generations, specifically in the area of Kivu around the Zairean town of Goma.

In other words, intense Hutu-Tutsi animosity, spilling over into massacres and ethnic cleansing continued for years after the genocide itself was ended by the invading RPF.

First Congo War 1996 to 1997

Gourevitch spells out how the genocide was a gift from God for Congo dictator Seko Sese Mobutu (p.281). The old bastard had been unceremoniously dumped by his Western supporters when the Cold War ended in 1990 and had gone through a lean time manipulating a succession of fig-leaf ‘democratic’ governments while he slowly lost control of the lucrative mining industries which had kept his kleptocratic state alive, inflation soared to 9,000 per cent, the economy collapsed.

But with the advent of nearly two million refugees in the far east of his country in 1994, Mobutu was suddenly the man the international community and countless aid agencies had to go through to help them and he proved a willing participant, seeing as he got to cream off significant percentages of the money passing through his capital and its crooked banks. Leading the charge was, of course, the dictator’s most loyal Western friend and the most avid supporter of the genocidal Hutus, France.

France, ever eager to bail out Hutu Power, broke ranks with the rest of what in Cold War parlance used to be called the ‘Free World’ and unilaterally restored aid to Zaire – which meant, of course, to Mobutu who shovelled the money directly into his Swiss bank accounts. (p.281)

Throughout the spring of 1996 Hutu Power militias based in the refugee camps funded by the West continued a campaign to ethnically cleanse the area of North Kivu of its native Zairean Tutsi population, Gourevitch tours the area after such cleansing, travelling through miles of devastation, meeting terrified refugees. The RPF Rwandan government demanded something be done to protect the Tutsis. Zaire protested no such cleansing was going on. The international community did precisely nothing (p.289).

Eventually Kagame was forced to consider direct military intervention into eastern Zaire where the camps were located. His ally Museveni had introduced Kagame to Zairean revolutionary and guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. They began recruiting troops and creating networks of like-minded soldiers, militias and exiles which coalesced into the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation or AFDL.

Since North Kivu had been largely ethnically cleansed of Tutsis, Kagam predicted the Hutu Power militias would next turn on the 300,000 or so Tutsis living in South Kivu, known as the Banyamulenge after the town they were meant to have immigrated from back in the seventeenth century.

In September 1996 Hutu militias began attacking the Banyamulenge, burning houses, assassinating key officials, executing people in the street. They were fully supported by Mobutu’s army and media, who blamed the Tutsis victims for every atrocity. This was the same pattern and rhetoric which had led to the genocide. Tutsis fought back and were aided by Rwandan soldiers infiltrated into the area (p.295).

When the local Zairean governor declared that the entire Banyamulenge population had one week to vacate their homes and leave the territory, it was precisely the kind of categorical provocation Kagame had been waiting for. He immediately ordered the advance of the amalgamated forces which he, Museveni and Kabila had created into South Kivu. He tells Gourevitch he had three aims:

  1. protect the Banyamulenge Tutsis, arm them, empower them to fight and protect themselves
  2. to dismantle the notorious refugee camps and get their Hutu occupants to return to Rwanda where they would be treated decently
  3. to ‘change the situation in Zaire’ i.e. remove Mobutu as an active supporter of genocidal Hutu Power and replace him with a modern, neutral figure

The AFDL advance was as disciplined and effective as the RWP invasion of Rwanda 2 years earlier. It had the decisive effect of breaking the grip of Hutu Power on the camps and forcing an estimated 700,000 refugees to abandon the camps and trek the 20 or 30 miles back across the border into peaceful Rwanda, and return to their communities. Obviously, there were all kinds of problems with this enormous reintegration into such a densely populated country and with so many divisive memories, but the wholesale massacre of Hutu refugees which the Hutu Power ideologues had terrified the refugees with never happened.

But to the wider world’s surprise the invading AFDL didn’t just invade the Hutu camps, tracking down Hutu Power exponents, freeing the majority of the Hutu refugees into returning to Rwanda – they then declared their intention of marching on Zaire’s capital, Kinshasa, approximately two and a half thousand miles west.

Fall of Mobutu May 1997

It took the AFDL a long seven months to get there, more a tribute to the shocking state of Zaire’s roads and infrastructure than to any opposition put up by the rubbish Zaire army, the FAZ (which Gourevitch describes as ‘Mobutu’s famously cowardly army’, p.256).

As Kabila’s troops approached the capital, president Nelson Mandela of South Africa flew in to try and broker a deal, but failed. Mobutu wanted to stay on the scene, if only as a figurehead president, while Kabila, leading the winning army, wanted all or nothing. Mobutu, his family and cronies fled, Kabila’s troops entered Kinshasa and on 30 May 1997 Kabila was sworn in as president. Next day Kabile changed the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was to be president until his assassination in 2001.

The Second Congo War 1998 to 2003

Kabila turned against his own backers, responding to the Congo public’s dislike of the occupying army of Rwandans and Ugandans and summarily expelling them all in 1998. Bad move. Rwanda and Uganda again collaborated in putting together an invasion force, this time with the aim of overthrowing Kabila and installing a more compliant president. However, the conflict ended up roping six other African nations into the fighting which degenerated into chaos.

The conflict dragged on till 2003 by which time an estimated five million people had died as a result of the conflict. Some armed groups remain active in the areas near Rwanda’s border right up till the present day, 2021.

The post-genocide period

The last hundred pages of this 350-page book cover the period after the genocide. Gourevitch describes the surprising number of Tutsis who returned from exile all over the place, not just the neighbouring countries of Uganda and Tanzania, but Europe and America, once it was clear that a democratic, mixed ethnicity and peaceful government was in place. And the inevitable tensions this led to between those who’d lived through the horror and seen family and loved ones literally hacked to death before their eyes, and returnees from abroad who moved into the many empty houses, tidied up the mess left by the departing Hutus, had barbecues, laughed and joked as if nothing had happened. Many of the survivors Gourevitch interviews find this difficult to cope with (pages 229 to 241).

He covers the massacre of Hutu refugees at the Kibeho refugee camp. He visits post-genocide prisons packed with Hutus who are strangely passive. Considering that high-profile Hutus were being assassinated on the outside, many of them were relieved to be in the relative safety of prison, regularly visited by international aid workers and monitors. He describes in detail the paradox of Hutu Power genocidaires being protected and funded by western aid agencies, at the complete inability of the international community, yet again, to intervene to stop their attacks into Rwanda and their ethnic cleansing of North Kivu and, yet again, the only thing to stop it being a military invasion organised by Paul Kagame, this time in the shape of the coalition AFDL.

At this kind of thing – specific settings and the issues arising from them – Gourevitch excels and his book will remain a valuable record and testimony to the tense, disorientated spirit of the period after the genocide and before the second Congo war of 1998, the one which degenerated into the Great War of Africa. Gourevitch thought he was covering an event which had finished but ended up recording a moment in the continual, ongoing flux of human events, the edgy post-genocide moment which has itself become part of history.

Stupid remarks

Gourevitch peppers the books with remarks which are, presumably, intended to be insightful, but as someone who did a history GCSE, A-level, history-based degree and has spent my life reading history books and attending history exhibitions, I found disappointingly obvious and trite.

Colonisation is violence and there are many ways to carry out that violence. (p.55)

Every war is unconventional after its own fashion. (p.82)

They sound good, don’t they, they create a good literary, rhetorical effect, they sound profound, but a moment’s reflection tells you they are trite or untrue. He operates on a very superficial level. When he quotes Lord Acton’s hoary dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as if it was a useful contribution to the debate about the genocide, you realise you are dealing with a child. He quotes Stalin’s alleged saying that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic, as if it’s a dazzling new discovery (p.201). Disappointing.

Worst of all, Gourevitch develops a theory of human nature based on his literary feelings, on the premise that the most important thing about human nature is the power of the imagination. Instead of seeing things in political terms, he again and again reverts to modish blah about narratives and stories and identity and returns again and again to the importance of imagination, narrative and stories. He is more indebted to Coleridge than Clausewitz. John Milton, Charles Dickens, Rilke, George Eliot, these are his terms terms of reference. It is thin stuff and wholly inappropriate to the subject matter.

He keeps writing things I profoundly disagree with.

We are, each of us, functions of how we imagine ourselves and of how others imagine us… (p.71)

(Note the prissy, attention-drawing use of commas, a rhetorical flourish to make the sentence sound more considered and profound.) I am a Darwinian materialist so I simply disagree. I would counter-suggest that we are, each of us, (sic) not at all functions of how we imagine ourselves, but functions of how our bodies work, products of our biology, of the complex interaction between our genetic inheritance and the myriad biochemical signals the environment we find ourselves in sends us or triggers in our bodies.

If I am starving to death in one of the world’s countless famines or dying of cancer or stroke or heart attack or delirious with malaria it doesn’t really matter what my imagination or anyone else’s imaginations are doing. I am a function, first and foremost, of my biology, all else is secondary.

He writes that the most basic function of power is to coerce us into its narratives. This reads to me like the modish bullshit of the English graduate. The whole approach reeks of the trend across all the humanities and high brow journalism to invoke the magic words ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ as if they explain everything about human nature and politics, but they don’t. If someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to do something or die, complex theories of meta-narrative and Coleridgean distinctions between imagination and fancy become irrelevant. When he writes:

I felt tempted, at times, to think of Rwanda after the genocide as an impossible country. (p.224)

I felt tempted to throw the book out the window. This is high-sounding bullshit. What does it even mean? A country is a country is a country, borders on a map, enforced by border police, with a government and administration and laws and a currency. Russia continues to exist after its century of Soviet tyranny, Germany is going strong, decades after the Holocaust and its violent partition, even Cambodia is still a country after the horror of the killing fields – and so on and so on. Clearly the worry that Rwanda is an ‘impossible’ country is a problem which only exists in Gourevitch’s head and shows you just how obtuse his responses can be.

There’s a lot to be written about the ideology of Hutu Power which drove the genocide and the way it shaped the actions of the génocidaires at all levels of Rwandan society, but Gourevitch doesn’t have the conceptual framework or academic training to do it. He makes repeated efforts to do so, but I found them shallow and disappointing.

The big takeaway

Leaving Gourevitch out of the equation, I think the biggest single thing to take away from study of the Rwandan genocide is that it wasn’t a one-off, inexplicable outbreak of barbarity. The one big thing you learn from studying it is that it was simply the highest point of a century-old culture of ethnic rivalry and hatred, which broke out from the 1950s onwards in repeated massacres and pogroms, exactly as the Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe were subject to centuries of persecution and pogroms way before the Holocaust.

In that sense it is far from inexplicable, it is very, very explicable. What turned the long history of minor, localised outbreaks of ethnic violence into a genocide was the hard work of the Hutu Power ideologues who set out to organise the extermination of the Tutsis by harnessing the organisation and technology of a modern state, using state radio, magazines, and every level of the highly structured administration to promulgate simple messages of hate and desperation. It boiled down to: “Kill the cockroaches before they kill us!” and hundreds of thousands of Hutus, primed by decades of negative propaganda, bought this message and acted on it (p.251).

But study of the Rwandan genocide doesn’t stop in July 1994. Like all the other accounts I’ve read, Gourevitch shows how it leads directly on to the issue of the Hutu refugee camps and the way the Hutu Power génocidaires survived and recreated their power structures there, terrorising hundreds of thousands of refugees, carrying out deadly incursions back into Rwanda, and then setting about the ethnic cleansing of east Congo. And how that led directly to the AFDL invasion of Zaire which became known as the First Congo War, and how that led on to the second invasion of Congo, by Rwandan and Ugandan forces which led to the disastrous Great War of Africa.

For a few months the specific genocidal Hutu Power campaign was able to be carried out with unbridled ferocity, but the killing of Tutsis had been commonplace for decades before it, and the killing of comparable numbers of Hutus (maybe as many as 100,000 Hutus were killed in all forms of revenge attack, from individual reprisals and local pogroms through to the more organised massacres in the refugee camps) followed seamlessly after it.

Gourevitch ends his book gloomily with Bill Clinton’s flying visit to Rwanda in March 1998 (he didn’t even leave the airport) but during which he acknowledged that the events of 1994 had been a genocide and that ‘the international community’ had done too little to intervene. The later sections of his book testify over and over to the complete failure of the international community, America or the UN to act either to prevent the genocide or to intervene to prevent the regrouping of the génocidaires in the camps. Gourevitch gets progressively more angry about it.

But the thing that comes over in his last few pages is the way the killings resumed inside Rwanda. During 1997 and into early 1998, as he was finalising his account, the number of murders and massacres of Tutsis by revived groups of Hutu Power génocidaires was steadily increasing. In fact the book ends with yet another grim atrocity, an account of how a group of 150 Hutu Power militia and interahamwe attacked a boarding school in Gisenyi and hacked to pieces the 17 schoolgirls and a 62-year-old Belgian nun.

In other words, as he ended the book, the tide of communal hate killing had returned and was rising. I’ll need to read other books to find out what happened next…

A correct understanding of human nature

The Rwandan genocide itself was a definable and unique historical event with a specific start and a specific end-point. Gourevitch, throughout his book, professes himself puzzled and bewildered at how it could ever have happened, incapable of imagining the motivation and mindset of ordinary people who took up machetes to hack their neighbours and own family members to pieces.

But the more you study it, the more understandable the Rwandan genocide becomes, provided you have a correct understanding of human nature.

We humans are animals, part of the animal kingdom, subject to the same constraints and urges as other animals. My son who’s just completed his Biology degree, said one of his lecturers summed up all animal activity in a snappy motto: feed, fight, fuck. That’s it. Like all animals, we humans are programmed to mate and reproduce; to do that effectively, we have to fight or compete (albeit in socially mediated and sublimated ways) for a mate. But none of this can take place unless we can feed and water ourselves on a regular basis.

For sure, the so-called ‘mind’ and ‘reason’ which well-fed philosophers have pontificated about for millennia, beginning in the slave societies of ancient Greece and Rome, is also a deep part of human nature – but most people, even the most highly educated, are fundamentally irrational and easily swayed. Humans are very suggestible and easily steered towards courses of action which let them fulfil their primal urges – hunger, lust, violence, and the more socialised wishes for praise and acceptance, wealth and power, no matter how local and fleeting. (Presumably Gourevitch has heard of Sigmund Freud. If so, why has he not learned anything from him, from the grim conclusions Freud drew about human nature based on the First World War?)

The great appeal of war for young men in less-than-perfectly-disciplined armies is that you can fulfil a lot of these really primitive urges. As well as the joy of killing alongside a closely-bonded band of brothers, war all too often provides endless opportunity for risk-free sexual violence. Hence the outbreak of mass raping during every conflict in human history, including the Rwandan genocide.

Once you align your thinking with the basic facts that humans are fundamentally irrational animals, driven by a cacophony of unconscious primitive urges, which lead them to make all kinds of irrational mistakes and, given the opportunity, behave terribly – then most of human history, including all its atrocities, make perfect sense, indeed seem inevitable.

Human nature doesn’t change, at least not on a timescale which human society registers. Give or take a few differences in social conventions, we understand the motives of medieval kings and Roman emperors just fine. And they map very well onto to the behaviour of contemporary African dictators such as Mobutu or Bokassa, just as the lickspittles and hangers-on in the court of each would be interchangeable, and just as the lives of the ordinary businessmen or urban workers or peasants doing forced labour in the fields would be recognisable in 1st century Rome or 20th century Congo.

It is only if you have a wrong understanding of human nature that you are surprised by atrocity and barbarity. Only if you assume that everybody else is as highly educated as you, as well-read in Rilke and Milton, as able to eat out in 5-star restaurants around the world on New Yorker expense accounts. If you come from this blessed background then you might be tempted to think that everyone else is as kind and generous and thoughtful and concerned about issues of gender and equality and identity and narrative as you are. So it is only if you live in this cloud cuckoo-land, liberal arts culture that you are going to be shaken to your core when you visit a country where hundreds of thousands of people undertook the systematic slaughter by hand of their neighbours and even their own family members.

The Armenian Genocide. The Russian Civil War. The Ukraine Famine. The Second Word War. The Holocaust. 20 million Russian dead. Indian Partition. The Great Leap Forward. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. Pol Pot in Cambodia. The Yugoslav wars. Has he not heard of these and many other comparable mass murders?

Why has he not learned the simple lesson that this is what humans do. In the right circumstances, whipped up by the right leaders, humans are capable of any atrocity. The Rwandan genocide wasn’t an inexplicable outbreak of madness but just the most recent example of an enduring and central aspect of human nature.

Gourevitch displays the same naive or obtuse shock every time he comes to ‘think about’ the genocide. The shock and dismay of a privileged, literature-soaked author, at the pinnacle of his liberal profession in the richest country in the world, amazed to discover what life is like in one of the poorest countries in the world (which is how Rwanda was classified by the World Bank in the immediate aftermath of the genocide, a place where the average annual wage was estimated to be $80, far less than Gourevitch and his fellow editors of The Paris Review probably used to spend on one business lunch.)

It isn’t anything ‘wrong’ in human nature or ‘wrong’ about the human imagination which he is discovering. Human nature is human nature just like gravity pulls things towards the centre of the earth, the sun rises in the morning, fire burns and so on. It is a basic fact of the world we exist in.

The reason Gourevitch is shocked is that he had such a completely mistaken view of human nature in the first place. He had read about the Holocaust but not really processed its lessons, what it tells us about what ‘ordinary’ people are capable of, namely any level of cruelty and barbarity if they think it means they and their loved ones will survive.

It is the shock of a pampered American discovering that the rest of the world is not like America, in fact it is inconceivably different. (Gourevitch is well aware of the issue of American parochialness and American ignorance. He routinely criticises the sparse and uninformed commentary on the situation in Rwanda and Zaire which he reads in even leading American newspapers like the New York Time and Washington Post, e.g. pages 297, 343. What’s the title of the Green Day song, American Idiot.)

Because he has diametrically the wrong view of human nature, Gourevitch at various points describes the genocide and the killings which followed it as a kind of failure of political and cultural imagination (p.206).

On the contrary, from my point of view, the Rwandan genocide was a kind of fulfilment of the profound and bestial aspects of human nature which I’ve described – albeit carefully whipped up, legitimised and organised by the Hutu Power propagandists. The genocide is explicable because it derives from understandable, analysable aspects of human nature. Have you not read any human history? Do you not know it amounts to a catalogue of massacres and genocides?

The common objection people make to my view of human nature, starting with my own kids, is: “Well, it’s not like that where I live. Where I live everyone is nice and friendly and caring. If what you say is true, how come everyone isn’t at everyone’s throats all the time?”

But the answer is simple: we in the West are well fed. Really well fed. The biggest medical problem in the West is the epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Fat people don’t fight. Even the most casual knowledge of history shows a direct correlation between hunger and social upheaval. The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the rise of the Nazis took place in societies pushed to the brink by famine, hunger and extreme social stress; in Weimar Germany mass unemployment meant people were literally starving.

In these circumstances, the most basic human drives come to the fore and can be manipulated and directed by those who understand how: Danton, Lenin, Goebbels, Pol Pot and, in Rwanda, the  exponents of Hutu Power such as Hassan Ngeze and Colonel Théoneste Bagosora.

It follows that the fundamental aim of any government should be to manage the economy in such a way as to ensure that most of its citizens are fed, not only as a good in itself but as the basic protection against social collapse and reversion to barbarism. To take a leaf from Gourevitch’s book and quote a famous literary figure, it was Bertolt Brecht who wrote: “Food first, then fancy talk about morality”. (“Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral” The Threepenny Opera).

Feeding your population, ensuring security of food, then of housing, then of work which is rewarded with a stable currency, are probably any modern government’s top priorities.

Gourevitch’s assembly of all the facts and his narrative of the deep history, build-up to and then catastrophic events of the Rwandan genocide are thorough and authoritative, and he has obviously interviewed an enormous variety of people who shed light on all levels of events, victims and perpetrators, as well as numerous UN and aid officials, ministers, government spokesmen, including president Kagame of Rwanda and president Museveni of Uganda. It’s a hugely impressive roster. He had tremendous, what the journalists call “access”.

For all these reasons his book tells a searing story and will remain important evidence. But every time he stops to ‘think’ about what he’s describing, he displays a regrettably low level of awareness about human nature, society and history. He demonstrates that he is an idealistic American unprepared for a world which is mostly not populated by well-read, New York liberals. His bewilderment is sometimes so total I wish I found it funny, but it ended up being deeply irritating and marring my admiration for the extensive and very impressive factual sections of his book.

Cecile Kayirebwa

We are animals, bound by the same fundamental facts and constraints of biology as all other life forms on earth. And yet we belong to a freak line of evolution which has led us to develop language, speech, writing, mathematics and technology, and create an impenetrably complex labyrinth of cultural artefacts. One among billions of these human artefacts is this song written by Rwandan poet and singer, Cecile Kayirebwa, which laments the victims of the Rwandan genocide.

Credit

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1998. All references are to the 2000 Picador paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

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Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck (2010) – 2

One reason van Reybrouck describes his history of the modern Congo as ‘epic’ is because so much happens that it becomes quite bewildering. Possibly you can break it down into two main parts:

Part one – pre-independence

Pre-history

The slow spread of Bantu tribes from central west Africa about 1,000 BC. The slow arrival of limited agriculture but without the pack animals or variety of farmed animals found in Eurasia resulting in subsistence farming. The permanent toll of fierce diseases carried by the tsetse fly killing humans and animals. The rise of the relatively small kingdom of Kongo around the mouth of the Congo River from the 14th to 19th centuries. It was this kingdom that the first Portuguese explorers encountered around 1500 and whose name came to be applied to the river and then the larger region.

European exploration 1850 to 1885

The tentative probing of David Livingstone into the region from the east, followed by the path-breaking expedition of Henry Morton Stanley which mapped virtually the entire length of the vast river. Followed by Stanley being commissioned by King Leopold of Belgium to open up the river by building a road, railway and importing steamships. And the rivalry with the French, represented by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza who wanted the territory directly north of the river, which ended up becoming the neighbouring state of Republic of Congo.

King Leopold’s Free State 1885 to 1908

At the Berlin Conference King Leopold of Belgium managed to persuade Bismarck and the French to assign him the huge area of Congo as his own personal fiefdom. I’ve documented the abuses and atrocities carried out by the King Leopold’s Force Publique which terrorised the entire native population in order to extract the maximum ivory and then rubber in reviews of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild (1999) and a review of the first part of this book. Eventually, Leopold was forced by public, political and international opinion to hand the Congo over to the Belgian state to run.

Colonial period 1908 to 1960

The long colonial period is interesting for what it says about European exploitation of its colonies in general, namely the continuation of the harvesting of raw materials by European companies, but the slow movement towards creating an educated native middle class, called the évolués, particularly after the Second World War (page 215 onwards).

Ironically, the creation of a very small educated class (numbering maybe 12,000 by 1954) went hand in hand with post-war affluence for the Belgian settlers. Between the wars it had still been a country for rough, tough male pioneers. After the war, new technological developments (in medicine and air conditioning) meant many more wives were brought over, affluent suburbs were created, gated communities with big houses, big lawns, big swimming pools, big chauffeur-driven cars. At just the moment that young educated Congolese began writing articles and books about their colonial status, a new kind of colour bar arose, whereby they were forbidden from entering whites only bars or swimming pools. Which created bitter resentment from the évolués who complained that they’d done everything the colonialists wanted, copied their clothes and manners but were still treated like second class citizens in their own country.

The rush to independence 1955 to 1960

Van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s rush to independence is riveting (but then every section of this brilliant book is riveting). A number of themes come over very clearly:

Spirit of the age: between 1945 and 1949 the Phillipines, India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon and Indonesia won independence from their colonial masters. The wave of new thinking culminated in the 1955 Bandung Conference of free and wanting-to-be-free colonies in Indonesia. It was the same year that Belgian journalist Jef van Bilsen wrote an article demanding to know the precise steps which the Belgian government was going to put in place over the following decades for independence. In 1956 Sudan, Morocco and Tunisia gained independence.

Calls for independence were galvanised by riots, the most serious occurring on 4 January 1959, in which a mob murdered whites and trashed white property (p.248). The threat of mass violence heralded the end of trouble-free European superiority.

The Belgians, galvanised by van Bilsen’s article, agreed to independence in principle, eventually, but were thinking in timescales of 20 or 30 or 50 years; they were outflanked by new native political leaders who demanded it NOW.

As a result the authorities organised the first free democratic elections in the country’s history for 1957. The sudden arrival of the notion of independence, and the election, led to the creation of ad hoc political parties and the sudden emergence of spokesmen and leaders.

Almost immediately it became clear that these leaders came from and spoke for particular regions and ethnic groups; tribalism wasn’t a later addition, van Reybrouck shows how the politicisation of ethnic groups was intimately linked with the creation of political parties right from the start (p.252).

Thus the Alliance of Bakongo (ABAKO) headed by Joseph Kasavubu, which had established itself as the leading opponent of colonial rule was largely made up of people from the Bakongo ethnic group and openly denigrated the Lingala-speaking Bangala. The Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA) represented Kivu and Conakat. La Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT) represented the mineral-rich province of Kitanga and was led by Moïse Tshombe. Bolikango spoke up for the Bangala, Jason Sendwe spoke up for the Baluba from Katanga, Justin Bomboko for the Mongo people and so on (p.252).

Another central figure who emerged was Patrice Lumumba, a former beer salesman and journalist who led the Congolese National Movement (MNC) which aimed to rise above tribal and regional affiliations and represent the entire country.

These parties began a kind of race to the bottom by outdoing each other in their demands for independence NOW. Anyone who didn’t want it within five years could be portrayed as a colonialist stooge; then 2 years; then one year; then 6 months. The Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which was held from January to May 1960 to thrash out the handover, which included half Belgian colonialists and half new Congolese leaders, found itself railroaded into agreeing the date of independence for June 30, 1960, less than 2 months after it ended (pages 256 to 259).

Van Reybrouck speaks to contemporary Congolese and some players in the political manoeuvres who lament, to a man, the mad rush to independence, realising in retrospect that the country was in no way ready for it, and blaming much of their troubles on what the Belgian King Baudouin had warned about in his radio broadcast of January 13, 1959, as ‘thoughtless haste’.

The result was that the country was completely unprepared, at every possible level: political, administrative, financial, managerial, technological, educational, industrial, agricultural.

On the day of its independence, the country had sixteen university graduates. And although there were hundreds of well-trained nurses and policy advisers, the Force Publique did not have a single black officer. There was not one native physician, not one engineer, not one lawyer, agronomist, or economist. (p.266)

One last theme is that in the short months leading up to independence the European big businesses who dominated every aspect of the Belgian economy, particularly the lucrative mining industry, made a series of deals with the fledgling local politicians (p.263).

Lastly, van Reybrouck details the pathetically utopian hopes of many common Congolese and even the educated leaders. At every level of society they thought that simply by getting rid of the oppressing white man would herald a brave new world of freedom and wealth and equality. Van Reybrouck tells stories of the less educated Congolese who sincerely believed that on day one of independence they would all be given a big European mansion, some of the Congolese hoping it would come with a lovely European wife thrown in, not to mention the big European car. Peasants buried boxes of stones in the belief that, at independence, they would magically change into gold. Many believed the dead would rise from the grave (p.27.

To put it mildly, all these hopes were to be bitterly dashed.

Part two – post independence 1960 to 2021

The period since independence takes up two-thirds of van Reybrouck’s book and is immensely complicated.

During the colonial period we had only had to deal with a handful of names, let alone the relative simplicity of the Leopold or Stanley eras. Now there is a blizzard of names of Congolese politicians and cultural figures and the acronyms of numerous political parties. Just as an example, the parties which attended the round table included the Association Générale des Baluba du Katanga (BALUBAKAT), the Association des Ressortisants du Haut-Congo (ASSORECO), the Centre du Regroupement Africain (CEREA), the Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT),  the Federation Generale du Congo (FGC), the Mouvement National Congolais-Kalonji (MNC-K), the Mouvement National Congolais-Lumumba (MNC-L) led by Patrice Lumumba, the Parti National du Progrès (PNP), the Parti du Peuple (PP), the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA). In the coming decades there were to be many, many more where they came from.

Initial chaos June 1960 to January 1961

In May 1960 elections were held to create the government which would usher in independence. Kasavubu was elected president and the rabble-rousing, crowd-pleasing Patrice Lumumba Prime Minister.

The electoral map of Congo in 1960, therefore, was largely identical to the ethnographic maps drawn up by the scientists half a century before…The three strongest figures to come out of the elections were Kasavubu, Lumumba, and Tshombe. Kasavubu held sway over the western part of the country, Lumumba over the northwest and center, and Tshombe over the far south. That corresponded with the major cities: Léopoldville, Stanleyville, and Elisabethville. The smaller parties divided among themselves the countryside that lay between. (p.264)

The really striking thing about Congo’s independence is how it started to go wrong within days.

Congo’s First Republic was an apocalyptic era in which everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Both politically and militarily, the country was plunged into total, inextricable chaos…The period between 1960 and 1965 is known today as the First Republic, but at the time it seemed more like the Last Judgment. The country fell apart, was confronted with a civil war, ethnic pogroms, two coups d’état, three uprisings, and six government leaders (Patrice Lumumba, Joseph Ileo, Justin Bomboko, Cyrille Adoula, Moïse Tshombe, and Évariste Kimba), two—or perhaps even three—of whom were murdered: Lumumba, shot dead in 1961; Kimba, hanged in 1966; Tshombe, found dead in his cell in Algeria in 1969.

On 4 July, 4 days after the independence celebrations, troops in Leopoldville mutinied for higher pay and promotions. The mutiny spread to nearby Thysville where the troops went on a rampage across the town, murdering whites and gang-raping white women (p.287). Within weeks an estimated 30,000 Belgians fled the country, catching whatever flights they could, abandoning their houses, cars and other property, fearful for their lives. on 10 July units of the Belgian army were flown in to secure key assets in the mineral region of Katanga.

It was chaos within a week and, in one sense, the madness has never stopped since. As van Reybrouck puts it, within 1 week Congo lost its army, within 1 month it lost almost everyone who knew how to run everything, from commercial companies to the electricity and water systems.

The abrupt transition from a monolithic, colonial administration to a democratic, multiparty system had included no intermediate steps, which was precisely why it resulted in a fiasco. (p.342)

From the actual date of independence to the murder of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The events leading to Lumumba’s murder have, as van Reybrouck points out, something Shakespearian in scale and horrible inevitability.

The Katangan secession 1961 to 1963

On 11 July, Moise Tshombe leader of the local Confédération des associations tribales du Katanga (CONAKAT), who had missed out on a senior position in the new independent administration, declared the Republic of Katanga a breakaway state, independent from the rest of Congo (p.294).

Initially supported by Belgian and the big mining corporations who thought Tshombe would protect their interests, ongoing internecine fighting within the province led to invasion by United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC) forces, who Kusavubu and Lumumba called on for help the very next day after the declaration, and after a lot of bloodshed Katanga Province was reintegrated into Congo in January 1963.

Normally these kinds of interventions are viewed in isolation but van Reybrouck makes the good point that the Soviet Union was flying in supplies to the central government, America considered invoking NATO forces to reinforce Katanga. In other words, the situation could have become the flashpoint for superpower confrontation, possibly the cause of a nuclear war. Seen in that context it was a very real achievement of the UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskold in defusing confrontation and making the issue a peacekeeping one.

Kasai secedes August 1960

In August 1960 Albert Kalonji had himself crowned king of the province of Kisai. Kalonji was standing up for ‘his’ people, the Baluba, many of whom had migrated to Katanga for work and were heartily despised there. Back in Kisai, the Baluba faced off against the Lulua. There was violence, massacres, gang rapes, the usual behaviour (p.302).

Mobutu’s first coup September 1960

Lumumba was a rebel. He had given outspoken speeches criticising the colonial Belgians, within weeks of trouble kicking off he had appealed to the Soviet Union for help. The Americans came to think of him as a dangerous commie, but van Reybrouck shows that his behaviour was, in fact, erratic and difficult.

On 5 September 1960 President Kasavubu declared that he was dismissing Prime Minister Lumumba. An hour later Lumumba went on the radio and announced he was dismissing President Kasavubu. It was chaos (p.303). Into the fray stepped Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who was to emerge as the central figure of Congo’s modern history. On September 14, 1960, he carried out his first coup d’état, with the approval and support of the CIA.

The murder of Patrice Lumumba January 1961

All the forces aligned against Lumumba. He came to be seen as an agent of instability and potential commie stooge. US President Eisenhower authorised the CIA to assassinate him. Lumumba asked for UN protection and a troop of blue helmets surrounded his house protecting him. Nonetheless he realised he had to flee back to his tribal heartland and on 27 November, as a tropical rainstorm drew away his besiegers, he was smuggled into a chauffeur-driven car and driven east. However, he loitered too much at towns on the way to press the flesh and was captured by his enemies. On 1 December Mobutu’s troops captured him. He was taken to a barracks prison, tied up, thrown into a cell. He received various visitors. Van Reybrouck gives a detailed account of his last days. On 17 January 1961 he was bundled into a car with his two closest associates and driven into the countryside where, in the presence of Belgian officers, of rival Congolese politicians, President Tshombe, the ministers Munongo and Kibwe, and a few of their colleagues, a mix of Belgian officers and Congolese soldiers executed him and buried his body in a well (p.308).

Lumumba had been in power for less than two and a half months. News of his murder flashed round the world and he became a martyr for independence and anti-colonial movements everywhere. In modern accounts we can see he was a human being with plenty of human failings. But no-one deserves to die like that. And in political terms it was a failure because the anarchy continued. The country was falling apart into seceding provinces with local rulers who promptly set about massacring their ethnic enemies.

Mobutu’s second coup November 1965

The chaos continued. In elections held in March 1965, Prime Minister Moise Tshombe’s Congolese National Convention won a large majority but President Kasavubu appointed an anti-Tshombe leader, Évariste Kimba, as prime minister-designate. However, Parliament twice refused to confirm him and government ground to a halt.

Into this impasse stepped Joseph-Désiré Mobutu who carried out his second and more lasting coup on 24 November. He had turned 35 a month earlier. He was to rule Congo for the next 32 years.

Mobutu good guy 1965 to 1975

Mobutu banned all political parties and activities and declared himself leader of one, unified, national political party the Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution, or MPR. But in the context of Congo this was not a totally bad idea. Arguably, for the first ten years of his rule he was a good thing.

The first decade of Mobutu’s thirty-year reign was a time of hope, expectations, and revival. “Mobutu was electric,” the writer Vincent Lombume told me once. And not only because he brought in television and built hydroelectric power stations, but also because he himself delivered a moral jolt to a nation in disrepair. The period 1965–75 is remembered as the golden decade of an independent Congo (p.335).

One by one he neutralised his enemies. President Kasvubu retired to his native village, never to take part in politics again. Moise Tshombi was abducted and ended up dying in a prison cell in Algeria in 1969 (p.338).

Mobutu used white mercenaries to quell the various secessionist movements and from 1968 onwards was able to concentrate on improving Congo’s infrastructure and living conditions. He instituted a secret police, which was allowed to use torture. He promulgated a new constitution centring the nation on himself. Uprisings or protests were likely to be massacred. On the other hand, for the majority of the population, he brought peace and stability. He tried to stamp out tribalism: entrants in the Miss Congo contest had to come from all regions and ethnicities; the national football team had to include players from all groups.

After the total debacle of the First Republic, he put Congo back on the map. He won respect and gave the country new élan. Had the Americans landed on the moon? He invited the crew of Apollo 11, making Congo the only African country to welcome the moon travelers. Were the Europeans organising a Miss Europe contest? He convinced the organisers to hold the finals in Kinshasa, and to give them a native twist. The winner, including in the category ‘African Costume,’ was a ravishing blonde from Finland. Were Congolese women still seen as the most beautiful on the continent? He backed Maître Taureau in organizing the first national Miss Congo contest…In short, Mobutu made good on the promises that independence had awakened but been unable to keep. (

Recours a l’authenticité

Aided by political strategist Dominique Sakombi, Mobutu embarked on a policy they called the Recours a l’authenticité (p.351). In 1966 he renamed Congo’s cities, replacing their European names with African ones: Leopoldville became Kinshasa, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, Stanleyville became Kisangani. In October 1971, he renamed the entire country the Republic of Zaire.

Mobutu disapproved of Christianity as a European imposition. Churches were shut down and Christmas was banned, while he encouraged the uniquely Congolese variant of Kimbanguism (p.355).

Every citizen was ordered to replace their European names with African ones. Priests were threatened with five years’ imprisonment if they were caught baptising a Zairian child with a European name. Western clothes were banned: men were forced to wear a Mao-style tunic known as an abacost (shorthand for à bas le costume, or ‘down with the suit’), women had to lock away their 60s mini-skirts and wear the traditional pagne (p.352).

In 1972 Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (meaning ‘The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.’). And he started wearing what became his trademark look: a tall man carrying a walking stick while wearing an abacost, thick-framed glasses and a leopard-skin toque.

Mobutu bad guy 1975 to 1990

But modern states rely on economic and financial realities. In 1967 Mobutu nationalised the huge mining company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga and the state began to benefit, for the first time, from the huge mineral resources it owned (p.345). Van Reybrouck makes the striking point that the global market for the many raw materials Congo could supply (copper, tin) was sky high because of the Vietnam War. As with the two world wars, war was good for Congo, or at least the people who mulcted the profits.

As the 1970s progressed it became more and more obvious that this meant Mobutu and his cronies. Examples slowly increased of the multiple ways he, his family and associates milked money from the state at every level. They set an example which ended up permeating Congo with corruption at every level. New words were invented to describe it. Clientelism. Kleptocracy.

In 1973 he announced a policy of Zairianisation, namely the expropriation of all small and medium sized businesses from non-African owners e.g. Greeks, Portuguese, Pakistanis. They were handed to cronies who didn’t have a clue how to run them and so this sector of the economy, also, collapsed (p.357). Unemployment rose. Everyone had to moonlight with second or third jobs. People began selling their belongings on the street.

The end of the Vietnam war in 1974 heralded a collapse in copper prices and the oil crisis also hit the country. Inflation soared. Food rotted in the fields for lack of infrastructure. The country became a basket case. His rule became more repressive. More arrests, secret police, clever new innovations in torture (p.386). Opponents disappeared. In 1970 and 1977 he was re-elected president with 98% of the vote; there were no other candidates.

He built classic vanity projects: a huge hydroelectric dam, the Inga Dam on the Congo, a vast steel foundry at Maluku. During the commissioning and building Mobutu and his cronies siphoned off huge sums. But after the European contractors had pocketed the last payments they walked away and the projects, lacking a workforce educated enough to run or maintain them, and lacking the infrastructure to move electricity or steel products around, lapsed into crumbling white elephants.

Van Reybrouck describes it as the rise of a state bourgeoisie, a new middle class which owed nothing to entrepreneurism, initiative or innovation, but was entirely based on family or tribal connections to the boss. As the general population displayed more poverty, as the official economy lagged and declined, Mobutu was able to ask the IMF or foreign governments for aid and loans which he then liberally dispensed to his extended ‘tribe’ of cronies and supporters. It was a kind of pyramid scheme. Between 1977 and 1979 alone Mobutu is calculated to have creamed off $200 million of state funds (p.375).

Meanwhile inflation soared to an annual rate of 60%. Most people struggled to feed themselves. Repeated reissuings of the currency did nothing to address the underlying failure of the economy. And yet Mobutu continued to be supported by the West: by France, as the largest Francophone nation in Africa, by America as a huge territorial bulwark against the prolonged communist insurgency in neighbouring Angola and an actual communist government in neighbouring Republic of Congo.

All the time he used the loans from the IMF and international banks to buy multiple properties in Belgium, the South of France, Switzerland, and the huge city-sized complex he built for himself at Gbadolite (p.380). In genuine monster mode, he had a big sexual appetite: he slept with the wives of his cabinet ministers, partly for fun, partly to humiliate them; wherever he travelled in the country he was offered the prettiest virgins to deflower (p.385). It was part of the cult of the supreme tribal chieftain and everyone else in the hierarchy followed his example. Schools became ‘sexual fishponds’ where local governors and administrators picked the prettiest girls (p.389).

Congo’s roads decayed and reverted back to tracks in the jungle. Soldiers sold their equipment. The air force sold off bits of planes as spare parts. The armed forces became a joke. The economy collapsed. Congo’s 15 million people tried to make a living any way they could amid the rubble.

Mobutu clings on 1990 to 1997

The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. As it happened within days of the fall of the Berlin Wall Mobutu crushed some student protests with unnecessary violence which was reported around the world. This was the last straw for his western supporters. Suddenly Mobutu was no longer seen as a bulwark against communism (such as the communist forces in neighbouring Angola and French Congo) and no longer as welcome as he had been in the White House of Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. In 1990 he was forced to appoint a transitional government with a promise of elections to come. There was an explosion of political parties and a newly freed press went mad.

In August 1991 the Sovereign National Conference opened but was immediately swamped in the kind of tribal and ethnic and political rivalries which had bedevilled the first republic. Things weren’t helped when soldiers in Ndjili mutinied then went on the rampage through the town, sparking universal looting.

In January 1992 Mobutu closed the conference and went on to cannily appoint then sack a series of Prime Ministers, playing individuals and parties off against each other. On 16 February a March of Hope was held through Kinshasa which was met by soldiers and ended in a bloodbath (p.403). The conference refused to shut down and issued messages of defiance at Mobutu the dictator. A decade or more of fear was coming to an end. Mobutu agreed to step back and accept a more ceremonial role. A genuine Prime Minister was elected.

But the country was still a basket, with a destroyed infrastructure incapable of distributing its rich agricultural produce, entirely reliant on its mineral exports most of whose profit was raked off by the kleptocracy. In 1994 inflation reached 9,769%.

In January 1993 soldiers who hadn’t been paid for months mutinied again and went on the rampage in every city and town where they were stationed. The Ndjili rampage became known as the First Plundering. This one was called the Second Plundering.

The Rwanda genocide 1994

Rwanda was mapped and defined by German colonisers. It contained three tribes, the Hutus who made up 85% of the population, the Tutsis 14% and the Twa 1%. The Tutsis had traditionally been the better educated elite of the country, a tribal division crystallised by the Belgians who assumed responsibility for Rwanda from the Germans after World War One (p.413).

In 1959, the Hutus overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and tens of thousands of Tutsis fled to neighbouring countries, including Uganda. A group of Tutsi exiles formed a rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which invaded Rwanda in 1990. Fighting continued until a 1993 peace deal was agreed. An estimated 20,000 were killed and 1.5 million civilians displaced (p.414). Bad blood and a fragile peace.

On the night of 6 April 1994 a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and his counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi was shot down, killing everyone on board. Both were Hutus and Hutu extremists immediately claimed the downing was an assassination preliminary to an uprising of Tutsis. They sent out instructions via press and radio to a bewildered nation of Hutus to kill the Tutsis before it was too late. Lists of government opponents were handed out to militias who went and killed them, along with all of their families, chief among them the youth wing of the governing party, the the Interahamwe, which was turned into a militia to carry out the slaughter. Machetes were cheaper and more available than guns (p.414).

In the space of just 100 days around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered. The UN had forces in Rwanda but its troops were not given orders to stop the killing. America was well aware of events but it was only 6 months since the ‘black hawk down’ events in Somalia in October 1993, when a mission to intervene and capture a Somali warlord went disastrously wrong and led to 19 American soldiers being killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. There was no appetite to put more American soldiers in harm’s way (p.417).

The French, predictably enough, were on the side of the genocidal government at least in part, van Reybrouck says, because the Tutsi rebels were based in the former British colony Uganda. It was these Tutsis in exile, the well-organised RPF, backed by Uganda’s army, which, in response to the genocide, did indeed invade Rwanda and fight their way to the capital, Kigali, which they seized on 4 July 1994.

The French forces helped the Hutu government which had organised the genocide, and hundreds of thousands of terrified Hutus to escape into neighbouring Congo, where huge refugee camps were established. Up to 2 million Hutus fled the conquering RPF. Some of the RPF followed them into Congo looking for the genocidaires, fighting spilled over in all directions.

The Rwandan invasion and the first Congo War, the fall of Mobutu

Van Reybrouck prepares us for all this with a detailed examination of the numerous tribal antagonisms which existed all over the eastern Congo, with low level massacres carried out by one side or another on an annual basis. He describes the rise of the Mai-Mai, Bantu nationalists, fierce Zairian patriots, who enforced a strict code of conduct and were merciless to all perceived outsiders, immigrants and refugees.

Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire before Congolese independence in 1960 were known as Banyamulenge, meaning ‘from Mulenge’ and had the right to citizenship under Zairian law. Tutsis who emigrated to Zaire following independence were known as Banyarwanda. The RPF in Kigali knew that most of the organisers of the genocide had escaped to the refugee camps in Congo where they were planning a counter-attack, and knew they had to strike first. In 1996 Mobutu signed an order expelling Tutsis from eastern Congo and this was the trigger for a general uprising.

President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Rwandan Minister of Defense Paul Kagame organised various Tutsis and anti-Hutu groups into a force designed to overthrow Mobutu in order to end his support for the Hutu.

Knowing their project would look like the invasion of a sovereign state Kagame and Museveni looked for a Congo citizen to front it and settled on the convenient figure of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, long term guerrilla leader and opponent of Mobutu. The army they assembled was named the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL).

The first step in the plan, and the key objective of the RPF government in Rwanda, was to eliminate the Hutu refugee camps where extremist elements were plotting to overthrow the Tutsi government.  This resulted in ‘massive carnage’ (p.423). Hutu refugees who had fled the initial attacks were gathered into further refugee camps, sometimes with the help of aid organisations, who were then banned from the area and ‘the ethnic cleansing could continue with impunity’. Ammunition is expensive, so the favoured weapons were machetes and hammers. The old, the sick, women and children and babies. No-one was spared.

As many as between 300,000 Hutu refugees were massacred by the AFDL and the Rwandan Defence Forces. In other words about a quarter as many Hutus massacred, as Tutsis in the original genocide. The more you read on, the more Congo ceases to sound like a country and more like a vast open air abattoir.

The Rwanda-Uganda-rebel Congo forces undertook the 2,000 mile trek all the way to Kinshasa, killing all the Hutus they could find along the way and massacring villages which held out. The gruelling trek lasted seven months and the invading forces were supported by the West, especially Bill Clinton’s America, which wanted to visibly sever links with the cynical old support for Mobutu, and also bought into Paul Kagame’s narrative of the Tutsis as victims of a terrible genocide (p.426).

Van Reybrouck includes a very useful map.

images

On 16 May 1997 peace talks chaired by South Africa Nelson Mandela failed and Mobutu fled into exile. Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory the next day. On 23 May 1997, Zaire was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Mobutu went into exile in Rabat, Morocco, where he died on 7 September 1997 of prostate cancer. On the day he fled, Kabila became the new president of Congo. The campaign to overthrow Mobutu became known as the First Congo War 24 October 1996 to 16 May 1997.

Rule of Laurent Kabila 1997 to 2001

We had in fact met Kabila back in the 1960s when he lurked in the forest of eastern Congo ineffectually organising rebellion and secession. When Katanga had seceded under the leadership of Moïse Tshombe, Kabila organised the Baluba people in an anti-secessionist rebellion in Manono and established a new province, North Katanga, in September 1962. In other words he had been a political player as long as Mobutu. But he lacked real commitment. When his rebellion fizzled out, he took to smuggling gold and timber on Lake Tanganyika, then ran a bar and brothel in Tanzania. Now Kabila brought the same half-assed approach to being president and soon alienated most of his backers. Che Guevara of all people had been sent to the Congo to foment communist revolution and spent months in the east Congo rainforest with Kabila and his men, and we have his diary entries which record that Kabila was certainly charismatic and a natural leader but lacked commitment to the cause.

Second Rwandan invasion and Second Congo War

Congolese rivals and political commentators came to resent the swaggering presence of Rwandan and Uganda soldiers in the capital. To avert a coup, Kabila expelled all Rwandan, Ugandan and Burundian military units from the Congo on 26 July 1998.

Now the whole reason Rwanda and Uganda had supported Kabila was to have a biddable puppet in charge in Kinshasa. When the worm turned they launched a second invasion, but this time commandeered commercial jetliners to carry troops to an airport not far from Kinshasa.

The Second Congo War began in August 1998, little more than a year after the First Congo War (p.439). It lasted till July 2003, when the Transitional Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo took power. But violence continues in many parts of the country, particularly in the east, to this day.

Ultimately, nine African countries and around twenty-five armed groups became involved in the war. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had caused 5.4 million deaths, principally through disease and starvation. Another 2 million were displaced by the conflict.

Van Reybrouck divides it into 4 phases:

  1. The invasion August 1998
  2. The stalemate September 1998 to July 1999
  3. The dissension August 1999 to July 2000
  4. The anarchy July 2000 to December 2002

In the middle of it, on 16 January 2001, Kabila was shot and killed by a bodyguard, former child soldier Rashidi Mizele, at the presidential palace in Kinshasa. Typically, van Reybrouck speaks to an eye witness, an aide to the president, who was in the office next door when he heard the fatal shots and goes some way to explaining the disillusion and then enmity of the many child soldiers or kadogos who had made up a significant percentage of the AFDL forces (p.419)

Thoughts

It is a bombardment of facts, countless figures large and small, and a blizzard of complex alliances and conflicts. It made me realise that one reason authors write about the Victorian era of exploration is that it was soooooo much simpler: you had half a dozen named European heroes, a handful of named Congolese porters or slave traders, and all the other humans were faceless extras. Whereas from the 1950s onwards you are dealing with a ‘real’ country, with ever-increasing numbers of politicians,  political parties, ethnic groups, provinces, rebellions, wars and massacres to try and understand.

Also, it’s really easy to assign blame if you stick to the colonial period. White man bad exploiter, black man helpless victim. Simple enough to put on a t-shirt. By contrast, the modern period, beginning with the run-up to independence, is bewilderingly complicated, and although the woke can persist with the overall conclusion that the West and white people are still the wicked exploiters, the reality is far more complicated. You can blame Mobutu’s long rule on his western political and commercial backers but he was, in the end, an African man ruling an African nation and free to choose his methods and policies: and the ones he chose were rule by violence and fear, and the deployment of corruption and larceny on an epic scale. He was, in fact, applying traditional tribal chieftain tactics (something he consciously promoted) but to a country the size of western Europe.

And when the Rwandans invaded and triggered the first Congo War, the situation doesn’t only become complex and messy but the wish to assign praise and blame is nullified. In my opinion these are just people peopling, human beings doing what they have done throughout history, fight, kill, conquer, enslave, rape and loot.

The job of any government is to create enough security and rule of law so that countries or regions don’t collapse back into the barbarism which is always lurking in the human psyche. In this respect the modern history of the Congo is a kind of showcase example of the complete failure to achieve that security and peace. Shorn of the thousand and one details specific to the Congo, van Reybrouck’s epic account shows, at a more abstract level, just how difficult the precious state of peace and security is to achieve, and how easily it can be overthrown with cataclysmic results.

Credit

Congo: The Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck was published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij in 2010. All references are to the paperback version of the English translation by Sam Garrett, published by Fourth Estate in 2015.

Surprisingly for a contemporary book, Congo: The Epic History of a People is available online in its entirety.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer by Tim Jeal (2007)

The workhouse boy in paradise… (p.104)

When news broke that the large and expensive expedition led by the American journalist Henry Morton Stanley and funded by the biggest newspaper in America, the New York Herald, had succeeded in locating the ‘lost’ Scottish missionary, Dr David Livingstone, in deepest darkest Africa (in fact, at the town of Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871) it was telegraphed round the (developed) world and overnight made Stanley one of the most famous men on the planet.

Over the next 15 years Stanley would lead a series of epic expeditions through central Africa, making important geographical discoveries, drafting maps, establishing contact with local inhabitants, naming lakes and waterfalls and founding settlements which last to this day, especially along what developed into his main area of activity the enormous Congo river.

Stanley’s later expeditions were financed by King Leopold II of Belgium and played a vital role in marking out the territory which Leopold, at the epochal Congress of Berlin in 1885, claimed as his own personal demesne. The Congo Free State under Leopold’s personal rule had, by the turn of the twentieth century, become a byword for brutality and exploitation. Maybe as many as a million natives of the huge Congo region were killed, maimed or worked to death by white overseers intent on extracting rubber and other marketable commodities by any means necessary.

1. This association with the evil king, along with 2. numerous damning stories and rumours spread about him by his rivals (that Stanley was gay, his marriage was a sham, that he went to Africa to indulge a) his homosexual inclinations or b) his homicidal inclinations), and even 3. Stanley’s own writings in which he poses as a tough and merciless leader of men, exaggerating the battles he was in and the men he’d whipped or even killed, all these factors contributed to blackening Stanley’s reputation, from his own day down to ours.

In his introduction to this long, thorough and meticulously researched biography, Tim Jeal explains that these accusations were given their modern expression in Frank McLynn’s 1990 biography, Stanley: Dark Genius of African Exploration.

Young Stanley, aged 31, posing as the great white explorer with Kalulu, an African boy he bought out of slavery during the Livingstone expedition and took to London with him where he sent him to a church school in Wandsworth. A year later Stanley took Kalulu on the trans-Africa expedition, where the boy would die when his canoe was swept over a huge cataract on the Congo river

By sharp contrast, Jeal sets out to give a strongly revisionist account. He goes to lengths to explain that, unlike any previous biographer, he has been lucky enough to have access to the vast archive of Stanley’s papers held in the Musée Royal de l’Afrique Central in Brussels, some 7,000 items, including some 5,000 letters to him from a vast range of correspondents.

It is a close reading of Stanley’s unpublished journals, letters to  early sweethearts, to his wife, and masses of other unpublished documents which have led Jeal to take a much more nuanced approach to Stanley’s character and achievements and to actively rebut some of the traditional accusations made against him.

In addition, Jeal has spent most of his working life researching the classic Victorian explorers in Africa. His 1973 biography of Livingstone took the same approach, using private letters, diaries and archives to reveal the deeply flawed and troubled man behind the legend. And a few years after this book, Jeal published Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (2011), a group portrait of the key European explorers – John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Richard Francis Burton, Samuel White Baker, Stanley, Livingstone and many others from 1856 to 1878.

The point is that Jeal has devoted a lifetime to in-depth research of these figures and it shows – in the length and scholarliness and immense attention to detail of this biography.

The central premise of Jeal’s account is that Stanley exaggerated his own brutality and the violent means he used in his explorations for personal and commercial reasons. 1. On a personal level, Stanley had experienced a childhood of Dickensian harshness and deprivation. Short, unloved, abandoned by his family and brought up in a workhouse, he over-compensated with fantasies of power, projecting himself as an invulnerable tough guy. 2. On a commercial level, Stanley was a journalist writing for American newspapers and they, too, valued sensationalism and tough guy heroics.

So both personally and professionally Stanley was incentivised to exaggerate the number of hostile tribes he encountered, the number of battles he fought, the casualties on all sides, the brutal way he enforced discipline on his own porters, the cruel way he inflicted punishment on warlike tribes. Jeal’s extensive notes indicate the thoroughness with which he re-investigated every single one of these claims and found time and time again a pattern of exaggeration and embellishment.

With the result that the Stanley who emerges from Jeal’s account is a much more intelligent, flexible and strategic figure, using violence where it was required, fighting back when attacked, but also encouraging his men and preferring to sign peaceful treaties with local chieftains, where possible. We have written evidence that he respected and admired Africans, wanted them to be treated fairly, and went out of his way to praise the lead porters who managed his extensive baggage trains. And he emerges as a much more psychologically damaged and vulnerable figure than the superficial history books suggest.

Stanley aged 44 in 1885, sporting the hat he designed to keep off flies and the sun, but which was widely mocked

Stanley’s early life

Accounts of Stanley’s three big Africa expeditions and his extended spell as explorer and negotiator for King Leopold can be found on any website about African exploration:

  • Livingstone expedition, 1871 to 1872, written up in How I Found LIvingstone, which single-handedly created the legend of the saintly missionary
  • African Great Lakes and Congo River, 1874 to August 1877 (999 days)
  • working for King Leopold, 1879 to 1885
  • Emin Pasha Relief Expedition, 1886 to 1889

Overall Stanley’s career in Africa covered some 18 years.

What is less well known and absolutely flabbergasted me was Jeal’s detailed description of Stanley’s early years. The young Stanley had one of the most action-packed and extreme lives I’ve ever heard of. So much happened to him that at several points I wondered whether I was reading a kind of spoof or parody of a life of derring-do. Surely nobody could have had so many adventures!

Stanley’s real name

For a start his name wasn’t Henry Morton Stanley and he wasn’t American. The boy was born John Rowlands in the town of Denbigh, north-east Wales, about 30 miles from the border with England.

Stanley’s mother

His mother was a teenager, Elisabeth Parry, who ended up having five children by three different fathers. Stanley never knew his father. He had suspicions and in later life tried to find out, but as a boy had no father figure in his life, and was haunted by the very real literal of abandonment.

Abandoned

His mother handed him over to his grandfather, Moses Parry, to look after but the grandfather died a few years later and the toddler John was passed onto cousins. They in turn fell on hard times and at the tender age of six, his uncle said he was taking him on an adventure, carried him on his shoulders the six miles to the nearby town of St Asaph and dumped him on the doorstep of the workhouse, rang the bell and walked away, abandoning him with no explanation. Imagine. Arguably John never recovered from these twin boyhood betrayals and the rest of his life can be interpreted by psychologists as a sustained attempt to regain the love and trust and sense of self-worth which he was robbed of at such an early age.

Workhouse

John Rowlands spent the next ten years living, eating, working in a workhouse where conditions were grim. Workhouses were inspected by local authorities and maintained a certain level of hygiene, food and education, and so young John was taught to read and write. He ended up as the equivalent of head boy and Jeal suggests that it was here, abandoned by parents and family, that he developed a taste for having younger, male followers, who he could order around, who gave him a sense of confidence and worth, which the Africa expeditions were to prove a an outlet for on a much larger scale.

Homosexuality?

In the St Asaph workhouse the boys slept several to a bed and contemporaries record that the older boys ‘took part in every possible vice’. Another Stanley biographer speculates that he was sexually abused there. Some of the girls were inducted into prostitution at an early age. Jeal quotes Stanley’s own writings asserting that this atmosphere had the opposite effect on him, putting him off sex, making him fastidious and disgusted. Maybe. There’s no doubt that his earlier, pre-Africa adventures and expeditions involved young male devotees. Was it platonic adoration or did it have a sexual tinge? This is the kind of psychosexual speculation beloved of modern biographers and encouraged by modern publishers because sex sells. Personally, I find it demeans the subject of this fruitless speculation and degrades the reader.

Jeal spends time producing the (limited) evidence and speculating. Personally, I don’t give a damn about anyone’s sex life except insofar as it directly effects their public actions or written works, and even then, most psychosexual biography seems pointless to me. Sexuality is so complicated, contradictory and chaotic that it seems to me presumptuous and generally futile to waste pages on idle speculation. I always skip these bits.

Liverpool

On coming of age Stanley left the workhouse and had to make his way in the world. His cousins arranged for him to go and stay with a relative, Uncle Tom Morris, in Liverpool (p.28). The family were friendly enough but turned out to be hard up and so John had to scout for work, eventually finding a job as assistant in a haberdashery. But the Liverpool docks were a romantic scene for a young man, full of sailors with stories of distant lands.

Cabin boy

Not surprising, then, that one day John announced to his relatives that he had signed up as a cabin boy on the Windermere bound for America. They warned him against it, it was a common practice to promise ‘cabin boys’ the equivalent of an apprenticeship but then treat them like dirt.

New Orleans

This is exactly what happened to young John and by the time the Windermere docked in New Orleans he’d had enough bullying and bad treatment, and jumped ship (p.31).

Hardware store

He wandered the streets and may have slept rough a couple of nights before getting into conversation with the owner of a hardware store and persuading him to take him on. In his autobiography John says the store owner’s name was Henry Hope Stanley and that he, John, needing a new identity in a new country, copied it. Jeal shows in meticulous detail that, as you might expect, the process was much more tentative than that: that the name might not have been that of the storekeeper himself (who Jeal identifies as a completely different person, James Speake) but certainly belonged to an eminent and successful New Orleans businessman and that John’s adoption of it was piecemeal and experimental over a period of years during which he experiments with variations on the names to create a new, American identity.

The Wild West

The store owner advised the man we can now call Stanley that he’d never make his fortune as a delivery boy, and to move up the Mississippi into the ‘the West’ where there were more openings for an enterprising man. So in August 1860 Stanley shipped up to Arkansas, to the small town of Cypress Bend fifty miles from Little Rock, where he got a job in another hardware store. Here he saw at first hand the violent, selfish, law unto themselves attitude of many of the settlers of what could be described as the Wild West. He gained in-depth knowledge of stores and supplies and provisions which would be of great use in his African adventures, and also of the very latest in guns and ammunition.

American Civil War

In April 1861 the American Civil War broke out. There was the usual rush of bellicose enthusiasm in both north and south. If young men didn’t volunteer for the army they came under concerted pressure, not least from young women, to show their manliness. Reluctantly young Stanley, still only 20, joined a regiment in the Confederate army (p.44). He fought at the famous Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, where Jeal gives a vivid description of the mayhem and massacre around him. Miraculously, Stanley survived unscathed and was taken prisoner by Union forces (p.45).

Briefly back to Wales

Stanley spent several months in a POW camp in Illinois where the prisoners came under pressure to sign up to the Union army which, eventually, Stanley did, on 4 June 1862 (p.48). A few weeks later Stanley discharged himself, made his way to Baltimore and took a ship back to Liverpool, to go see his estranged family (p.49). His mother was now the landlady of a pub in Denbigh, and when he arrived, hungry and tired, having walked from Liverpool, she rejected him. He stayed in the area a few days before returning Liverpool and taking ship back to the States.

Merchant seaman

For the next year and a half he bummed around as a sailor on American merchant ships which visited ports in Spain and France (p.51). In July 1864, still at a loss what to do in life, Stanley enlisted in the Union navy. He was appointed ship’s clerk or writer on the USS Minnesota. He was an eye witness to the bombardment of Fort Fisher in December 1864, and wrote it up not only for official records, but managed to sell colourful descriptions to several local newspapers. This marked his debut as a journalist (p.52). In February 1865 he persuaded a younger shipmate, Lewis Noe, to desert the ship when it was refitting in docks at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They escaped wearing civilian clothes he’d bought from some carpenters.

Rafting down the Platte river

Stanley returned to New York where he resumed working for a man named Hughes. But he wanted a life of adventure, he avidly consumed accounts of adventures, he wanted to see the West. In May 1865 Stanley travelled to St Louis and managed to wangle a job a freelancer for the Missouri Democrat. To supplement his income he got a labouring job at a smelting works. Here he picked up another acolyte, William Harlow Cook and managed to persuade him to go on an ‘adventure’ and navigate the Platte River some 600 miles from Denver to where it joins the huge Missouri river (p.57).

It was at moments like this that I began to wonder whether Jeal was pulling the reader’s leg, but then I realised he is taking these accounts directly from Stanley’s own autobiography. As Jeal is a tremendous stickler for accuracy and devotes pages of text and extensive footnotes to even tiny details of the expeditions, one assumes he has cross-checked and verified Stanley’s accounts of his early adventures, too. And Stanley and Cook did have adventures, rafting during the day, camping in a tent at night: the raft capsized, losing a lot of their equipment, they were arrested by an army officer looking for deserters till Stanley threatened to shoot it out, the righted the raft and continued the journey, till it overturned again, Cook held on and was quickly carried away while Stanley had to make his way by land to Nebraska where they were eventually reunited.

Adventure in Turkey

Stanley returned to New York with Cook in tow and was reunited with Lewis Noe and his family. Somehow Stanley now managed to persuade both Cook and Noe to accompany him on an expedition to Turkey. They sailed from Boston to Izmir where, funds being low, Stanley could only afford two horses: one of his young acolytes had to walk. The journey turned into another ruinous farce. Noe set fire to some bushes to scare Cook but started a major conflagration which saw the three Americans get arrested.

Securing a release they continued inland till another controversial incident took place where Stanley tried to murder a Turk they met with a sword: he claimed he was fighting off the Turk’s sexual advances to Noe, Cook claimed Stanley meant to murder the Turk and steal his horses (p.59). The fight attracted ten other Turks who robbed our guys of all their belongings, dragged them to a nearby village, tied them up. Noe was gang-raped at knifepoint. A local magistrate heard of their situation and had them conveyed to a proper gaol. The local judge found the alleged assailants in possession of what was obviously Stanley’s American goods and so our guys all Stanley’s were released from prison and then spent some time suing the Turkish government for compensation. Stanley contacted the American ambassador at Constantinople who reluctantly lent these shabby American chancers £150, enough to pay Noe and Stanley’s fares to Marseilles, then to Paris, London and onto Liverpool (Cook had to stay behind to give evidence in the trial).

(Later we learn that much of the substance of these adventures were ratified by Lewis Noe himself who sold his version of events, from jumping ship in Portsmouth through the Turkey debacle, to the New York Sun, when Stanley returned from the Livingstone strip and was famous.)

Denbigh again

Stanley detoured, once again, from Liverpool to Denbigh to track down his mother the publican, this time wearing an officer’s uniform he’d had knocked up in Constantinople, to impress her with what a success he had become. Once again, she was less than impressed. He stayed over Christmas, visited other relatives, tried out his new persona of Henry Morton Stanley, moped around Liverpool, again, then took ship back to America.

The Wild West

In February 1867 Stanley arrived back in St Louis and wangled a full-time job on the Missouri Democrat at the princely salary of $15 a day. The very next day he was given the assignment of reporting on General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Indian campaign against the Kiowas and the Comanches (p.67). He covered the whole campaign, describing Indian atrocities and scalpings, the army’s destruction of native villages, he interviewed Wild Bill Hickock. He was right there in the Wild West.

The imperialist principle

Jeal makes the important point that it was here, watching the native Americans being harried, murdered and burnt off their ancestral land, that Stanley imbibed the key principle of imperialism – that backward nations and peoples will fall ineluctably and unpreventably before the forces of ‘civilisation’, industrialisation and economic development. In his writings Stanley sympathised with the Indians but thought that nothing could be done to save them; modernisation was an inevitable process; if not this general then another one. And this was the hard-headed, ‘realist’ attitude he took to Africa.

The New York Herald

But a fire burned in him to see the world, to have great adventures, to go to Africa. In December 1867 he travelled to New York, to the offices of the best selling newspaper in America, the New York Herald, where he bluffed his way into an interview with the tough editor James Gordon Bennett Junior, the hard-driving editor of America’s most successful newspaper, the New York Herald. Stanley pitched his idea of going in search of Dr Livingstone, but it was too speculative for Bennett who suggested a more practical assignment – reporting on the British military expedition into Ethiopia.

Journalist in Ethiopia

In 1867 the emperor of Ethiopia, Tewodros II, had taken a British envoy and others hostage the British government despatched a force to release them. Stanley arrived in Suez in January 1868 and promptly bribed the telegraph operator to transmit his despatches before any other journalist (p.71). accompanied that force as a special correspondent of the New York Herald.

He made several big discoveries on this trip. First was that, by posing as an American, he sidestepped the wretched British class system, and was treated as an equal by the lofty British officers. He was impressed by their cult of nonchalance and aristocratic indifference and cultivated the same pose. He also discovered how to be a success, ensuring that his account of the Battle of Magdala in 1868 (where the British, predictably, whipped the Ethiopian forces) was the first to be telegraphed back to Europe and America. It was a sensational scoop which made his reputation as a journalist and secured him a permanent job at the Herald (p.72)

Spain

Bennett now treated Stanley like any foreign correspondent and sent him to trouble spots to report. In October 1868 he was sent to Spain which was experiencing a civil war between monarchists and republicans. Taking a break from reports he returned to London, where he invited his mother and half sister to visit him, now staying in a grand hotel and unambiguously a successful man of the world. He returned to Spain in 1869 and Jeal uses Stanley’s autobiography to describe Stanley’s hair-raising adventures in Madrid, running across streets as the bullets flew and barricading hotel windows to stop stray bullets in scenes reminiscent of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (p.82).

Through Asia

As you’d expect, Jeal deals with his customary thoroughness with the thorny question of who had the idea to go looking for the famous British missionary, Dr David Livingstone, who had departed for central Africa several years earlier, who nothing had been heard of for years, and who was feared dead. Was it Bennett’s idea or was it, the preferred option, a long-standing ambition of Stanley’s which he pitched an at-first sceptical Bennett?

Either way, although Bennett agreed it was a good idea, he decided to leave it on the back burner while public interest in Livingstone’s mysterious fate grew. Instead he paid for Stanley to go on journalistic assignments through ‘Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, the Crimea, Persia and finally India’ (p.85). During this year of travels Stanley reported on the opening of the Suez Canal, examined excavations in Jerusalem, visited Odessa and the battlefields of the Crimea, interviewed the governor of the Caucasus at Tiflis and travelled to the Persian Gulf via Persepolis.

Go ahead for the Livingstone expedition

He ended up in Bombay in October 1870, which is where he finally received the go-ahead from Bennett to proceed with the expedition to find Livingstone who was, still, ‘lost’, his whereabouts unknown. With promise of full funding Stanley set sail from Bombay across the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar, the traditional provisioning and jumping off point for east central Africa, in January 1871 (p.91).

It’s important to emphasise that there had been some news about Livingstone. In November 1869 the Bombay Gazette had published a letter Livingstone had sent from the interior, dated 6 months earlier and stating he was at the town of Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika. And this was, indeed, where Stanley was to find him.

Provisioning an African expedition

But the journey inland was perilous and logistically challenging. In the absence of any roads or wheeled vehicles or pack animals who could survive the dreaded tsetse fly, all provisions had to be carried by porters, hundreds of porters, who as well as food and drink carried the trade goods and gifts which had to be doled out liberally to all the tribal chiefs whose territory had to be crossed.

Jeal goes into characteristic detail about the funding, recruiting and provisioning for the great adventure. He hired local porter managers who had helped other explorers with their expeditions, and four white men to act as companions. Stanley led his large force out of Bagamoyo, the coastal port opposite Zanzibar, and into the interior on 21 March 1871. He had just turned thirty years old.

Summary of Stanley’s early life

What a life he had led! Just reading about his exploits is exhausting. Rejected by his mother, abandoned by his family, workhouse boy in a swamp of depravity, self educated, runaway to America where he acquired a new identity and reinvented himself as a buccaneering journalist in the Wild West, leader of absurd adventures on rivers and into faraway Turkey before bluffing his way into a top job as foreign correspondent with America’s premier newspaper, reporting from all over Europe and the Middle East. And only now, aged 30, embarking on the great adventure which would make his name and which, in turn, inaugurated 16 years of exploring, trekking, fighting, signing trade deals and mapping out huge swathes of unexplored central Africa.

He had packed more into his life before he set out to find Livingstone, aged 29, than many adventurers could claim to have experienced in their entire lives. (p.469)


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Reflections on The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Critique of Hobsbawm’s Marxisant approach

In the third of his mighty trilogy of histories of the long nineteenth century, The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914, as in its two predecessors, Hobsbawm makes no attempt to hide his strongly Marxist point of view. Every page shouts his contempt for the era’s ‘bourgeois’ men of business, its ‘capitalists’ and bankers, the despicable ‘liberal’ thinkers of the period and so on. From time to time his contempt for the bourgeoisie rises to the level of actual abuse.

The most that can be said of American capitalists is that some of them earned money so fast and in such astronomic quantities that they were forcibly brought up against the fact that mere accumulation in itself is not an adequate aim in life for human beings, even bourgeois ones. (p.186)

Replace that final phrase with ‘even Jewish ones’ or ‘even Muslim ones’ or ‘even black ones’ to get the full sense of how deliberately insulting it is intended to be and how unacceptable his invective would be if applied to any other group of people.

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to quote Marx (who died in 1883, saddened by the failure of his communist millennium to arrive) or Lenin’s views on late capitalism and imperialism (Lenin published his first political work in 1893), and he loses absolutely no opportunity to say ‘bourgeoisie bourgeoisie bourgeoisie’ scores of times on every page till the reader is sick of the sight of the word.

Hobsbawm’s highly partisan and politicised approach has strengths and weaknesses.

Hobsbawm’s strengths

On the up side, using very simplistic binary oppositions like ‘the developed world’ and ‘the undeveloped world’, the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’, helps him to make great sweeping generalisations which give you the impression you are gaining secret access to the engine room of history. If you ignore the complexity of the histories and very different cultures of individual nations such as America, Britain, France and Germany, and lump them altogether as ‘the West’, then you can bring out the broad-brush historical and economic developments of the era, grouping together all the developments in science, chemistry, physics, technology, industry and consumer products into great blocks, into titanic trends and developments.

This gives the reader a tremendously powerful sense of bestriding the world, taking part in global trends and huge international developments. Just as in The Age of Capitalism, the first half or so of the book is thrilling. It makes you feel like you understand for the first time the titanic historical forces directing world history, and it’s this combination of factual (there are lots of facts and figures about industrial production) and imaginative excitement which garnered the trilogy so many positive reviews.

Hobsbawm’s obsession with capitalism’s contradictions

Hobsbawm makes obeisance to the Marxist convention that ‘bourgeois’ ideology was riddled with ‘contradictions’. The most obvious one was the contradiction between the wish of national politicians to define and delimit their nations and the desire of ‘bourgeois’ businessmen to ignore all boundaries and trade and invest wherever they wanted around the globe (p.40).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the way the spread of ‘Western ideology’ i.e. education and values, to developing countries, or at least to the elites within European colonies, often led to the creation of the very Western-educated elites who then helped to overthrow it (he gives the London-trained lawyer Gandhi as the classic example, p.77, though he could as easily have mentioned Jawaharlal Nehru, educated at Cambridge, trained at London’s Inner Temple as a barrister).

Another ‘contradiction’ was the between the way the mid-century ‘bourgeois’ industrial and economic triumph rested on a mechanical view of the universe, the mechanical laws of physics and heat and chemistry underpinning the great technological advances of the later nineteenth century. Hobsbawm then delights in the way that, at the end of the century, this entire mechanistic worldview was overturned in a welter of discoveries, including Einstein’s theory of relativity, the problematic nature of the sub-atomic world which gave rise to quantum physics, and deep discoveries about the bewildering non-rational basis of mathematics.

These are just some of the developments Hobsbawm defines as ‘contradictions’ with the aim of proving that Marx’s predictions that capitalism contained within itself deep structural contradictions which would undermine it and lead inevitably to its downfall.

Why Hobsbawm was wrong

Except that Marx was wrong and Hobsbawm is wrong. His continual mentioning Marx, quoting Lenin, harking back to the high hopes of the revolutionaries of 1848, invoking the memory of the Commune (redefined, in good Marxist style, as a heroic rising of the downtrodden working classes, rather than the internecine bloodbath that it actually was), his continual harking forward to the Bolshevik revolution as somehow the climax of all the trends he describes, his insistence that we, he and his readers, all now (in the mid-1980s when he wrote this book) still live in the forbidding shadow of the Russian revolution, still haunted by the spectre of communist revolution — every aspect of his attitude and approach now seems dated and irrelevant.

Now, in 2021, it is 30 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites revealed:

  1. Their complete failure to build an economic and social system which could be a serious alternative to ‘capitalism’.
  2. The extraordinary extent to which communist regimes had to surveil, monitor and police every aspect of their populations’ behaviour, speech and thoughts, in order to prevent them relapsing into the ways of human nature – the prison camps, the psychiatric wards, the secret police. Look at China today, with its censorship of the internet and its hounding of dissidents, its suppression of Falun Gong and the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang.

Seen from our contemporary perspective, Hobsbawm tendentious habit of naming every clash in policies, every development in cultural thinking as some kind of seismic ‘contradiction’ which will bring global capitalism tumbling down, looks like what it is, a biased obeisance to Marxist ideas which have long ago proved to be untrue.

The misleading use of terms like ‘bourgeois’

To some extent his attitude is based on one particular logical or rhetorical trick which can be proved to be false.

In the later chapters of the book, about the arts, the hard and social sciences, Hobsbawm repeatedly claims that this or that aspect of ‘bourgeois ideology’ of the mid-nineteenth century came under strain, suffered insoluble contradictions, underwent a crisis, and collapsed.

I think this is the crux of the massive mistake he makes. It consists of several steps:

  1. identifying every element of mid-nineteenth century political and cultural theory as some universal thing called ‘bourgeois’
  2. identifying this ‘bourgeoisie’ as the central and necessary figure of the capitalist system
  3. and then claiming that, because in the last few decades of the nineteenth century this ‘bourgeois’ ideology came under strain and in many ways collapsed, that therefore this shows that capitalism itself, as a system, must come under strain caused by its internal contradictions and therefore must collapse

Surely anyone can see the logical error here. All you have to do is stop insistently repeating that mid-nineteenth century ideology was identical with some timeless ‘bourgeois’ ideology which necessarily and uniquely underpins all capitalism, and simply relabel it ‘mid-nineteenth century ideology’, and then all your sentences stop being so apocalyptic.

Instead of saying ‘bourgeois ideology was stricken by crisis’ as if The Great Revolution is at hand, all you need say is ‘mid-nineteenth century political and social beliefs underwent a period of rapid change at the end of the century’ and the portentous sense of impending doom hovering over the entire system vanishes in a puff of smoke – and you are left just describing a fairly banal historical process, namely that society’s ideas and beliefs change over time, sometimes in abrupt reversals resulting from new discoveries, sometimes as slow evolutionary adaptations to changing social circumstances.

Put another way, Hobsbawm identifies mid-nineteenth century liberal ideology as if it is the one and only shape capitalist thinking can possibly take and so excitedly proclaims that, by the end of the century, because mid-nineteenth century ‘bourgeois’ beliefs were quite visibly fraying and collapsing, therefore capitalism would collapse too.

But quite obviously the ‘capitalist system’ has survived all the ‘contradictions’ and ‘crises’ Hobsbawm attributes to it and many more. It is still going strong, very strong, well over a century after the period which Hobsbawm is describing and when, he implies, it was all but on its last knees.

In fact the basic idea of manufacturing products cheap and selling them for as much profit as you can, screwing the workers who make them and keeping the profits to a) enjoy yourself or b) invest in other business ventures, is probably more widespread than ever before in human history, seeing how it’s been taken up so enthusiastically in post-communist Russia but especially across hyper-modernising China.

In other words, Hobsbawm’s use of Marxist terms like ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ may have a certain explanatory power for the era he’s describing, but after a certain point they are too simplistic and don’t describe or analyse the actual complexity of even one of the societies he describes, let alone the entire world.

At some point (which you can almost measure in Hobsbawm’s texts) they cease to be explanatory and become obfuscatory, hiding the differences which separate America, Britain and Germany much more than unite them. Use of the terms simply indicate that you have entered a certain worldview.

Imagine a Christian historian identifying mid-nineteenth century ideology as the one and only expression of ‘Christian’ ideology, an ideology which divided the population into ‘believers’ and ‘unbelievers’, into the ‘saved’ and the ‘damned’. Imagine this historian went on to describe how the widespread ‘crisis’ in Christian belief at the end of the century indicated that the entire world was passing out of the phase of Christian belief and into infidel unbelief.

If you read something like that you would immediately know you are inside the particular worldview of an author, something which clearly means a lot to them, might shed light on some aspects of the period – for example trends in religious belief – but which in no way is the interpretation of world history.

a) Plenty of other interpretations are available, and b) despite the widespread laments that Christianity was dying out in the later nineteenth century, contrary to all their pessimism, Christianity now has more adherents worldwide than ever before in human history. And ditto capitalism.

The dominance of the key terms Hobsbawm deploys with such monotonous obsessiveness (capitalism, bourgeoisie, proletariat, liberal ideology) don’t prove anything except that you have entered the worldview of a particular author.

The system with the real contradictions, contradictions between a) its utopian claims for equality and the reality of a hierarchical society which privileged party membership, b) between its promises to outproduce the West and the reality of permanent shortages of consumer goods and even food, c) between its rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and the reality of the harsh repression of any kind of political or artistic unorthodoxy – was communism, whose last pitiful remnants lie rusting in a thousand statue parks across Russia and Eastern Europe.

The fundamental sleight of hand in Hobsbawm’s argument

Because Hobsbawm identifies the mid-nineteenth century worldview with the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ as the indispensable foundation of ‘capitalism’, he tries to pull off the conjuring trick of claiming that, since the mid-nineteenth century worldview drastically changed in all kinds of ways in the last decade of the century, these change invalidate the ‘bourgeoisie’, and that this, in turn, invalidates ‘capitalism’. Proves it is wrong and doomed to collapse.

You can see how this is just a three-card trick which moves vague and indefinable words around on the table at speed to bamboozle the impressionable. For despite the trials and tribulations of the century of extremes which followed, ‘capitalism’ in various forms appears to have triumphed around almost the entire world, and the materialistic, conventional, liberal ‘bourgeoisie’ which Hobsbawm so despises… appears still to be very much with us, despite all Hobsbawm’s protestations about its terminal crises and death throes and contradictions and collapse.

Victimology tends to tyranny

To anyone familiar with the history of communist Russia, communist China and communist Eastern Europe, there is something unnerving and, eventually, worrying about Hobsbawm’s very broad-brush division of the entire world into victims and oppressors.

The first half of the twentieth century was the era of totalitarian governments seeking to gain total control over every aspect of their populations and mould them into better humans in a better society. The first thing all these regimes did was establish goodies and baddies, and rouse the population to be on perpetual guard against the enemy in whatever guise – ‘the bourgeoisie’, the ‘kulaks’, ‘capitalist roaders’, ‘reactionary elements’, ‘the Jews’, and so on.

Dividing the entire huge world and eight billion people into simple binaries like ‘oppressors’ and ‘victims’, ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘workers’, ‘exploiters’ and ‘exploited’, ‘white’ masters and ‘black’ victims, is worryingly reminiscent of the simplistic, binary thinking which the twentieth century showed leads to genocides and mass killing.

Hobsbawm criticises the nationalist parties of the late-nineteenth century for dividing up populations into citizens and outsiders, members of the Volk or aliens, a process of which the Jews were notable victims. And yet he enacts the very same binary oppositioning, the same outsidering of a (large) group of society, by objectifying and insulting the ‘bourgeoisie’ at every opportunity.

It’s the same old mental slum: if only we could get rid of the gypsies / homos / lefties / commies / bourgeoisie / capitalists / Catholics / Protestants / Armenians / Jews / Croats / Serbs / Tutsis / Hutus / men / whites / blacks / immigrants / refugees, then society would be alright. I call it ‘If-only-ism’.

If capitalism and imperialism were inevitable, how can anyone be guilty?

In Age of Capital Hobsbawm describes how the industrial revolution amounted to a lucky fluke, a coming together of half a dozen circumstances (of which the most important was, in his view, Britain’s command of the waves and extensive trading network between colonies) and this helps you realise that some people were able to seize the opportunity and exploit it and become masters of small firms and then of factories etc. Clever, quick, resourceful or well-placed men leapt to take advantage of new opportunities. Any history of the industrial revolution names them and gives biographies of individuals central to the series of inventions or who then set up successful firms to exploit them.

However, the tendency of Hobsbawm’s very high-level Marxist approach, his sweeping surveys which pull together evidence from Austria, or France, from north Italy or New York, is, paradoxically, to remove all sense of agency from the humans involved. Hobsbawm makes it seem almost inevitable that the first industrial revolution (textiles) would give rise to a second (iron and coal) which in turn would give rise to a third (steel, organic chemistry, electrics, oil).

And he makes it seem inevitable that, once the world was fully mapped and explored, then the other ‘western powers’ which by 1890 had more or less caught up with Britain in terms of industrialisation, would join the competition to seize territories which contained valuable minerals or exotic produce (tea, coffee, bananas). That an acceleration of imperial rivalry was inevitable.

But if it had to pan out this way, how can you blame anyone? If, viewed from this lofty godlike perspective, it was inevitable that industrialisation broke out somewhere, that it would spread to all similar regions and states, that the now numerous industrial nations would find themselves in competition for the basic resources (food) and more arcane resources (rubber, oil, rare metals) required to drive the next stage of industrial development – can you blame them?

You could call it Hobsbawm’s paradox, or Hobsbawm’s Choice. The more inevitable you make the entire process sound, the less reason you have to be so cross at the ‘bourgeoisie’.

The reality is that you can, of course, hold the western nations accountable for their actions, but only if you descend to a lower level of historical discourse than Hobsbawm’s. Only if you begin to look at specific actions of specific governments and specific men in specific times and places an you begin to make assessments and apportion praise or blame.

Responsibility and guilt can’t really exist at the level Hobsbawm is operating on because he goes out of his way to avoid mentioning individuals (with only a few exceptions; Bismarck’s name crops up more than any other politician of the period) and instead emphasises that it all unfolded according to almost unavoidable historical laws, implicit in the logic of industrial development.

If humans couldn’t avoid it, then they can’t very well be blamed for it.

In light of Hobsbawm’s theory, is equality possible?

The same set of facts give rise to a parallel thought, which dogged me throughout reading this book, which is — if what Hobsbawm says is true, if industrial and technological developments tend to be restricted to just a handful of certain nations which have acquired the technology and capital resources to acquire ‘liftoff’ to industrialisation, and if, within those nations, the benefits of industrialisation accrue overwhelming to a small proportion of the population; and if this process is so stereotyped and inevitable and unstoppable — then, well… is it even possible to be fair? Is it possible to achieve anything like ‘equality’? Surely the entire trend of the history Hobsbawm describes with so much verve suggests not.

Putting aside the issue of fairness in one nation aside in order to adopt Hobsbawm’s global perspective, he often repeats the formula that countries in the ‘undeveloped’ or ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ (whatever you want to call it) were forced by the demands of consumer capitalism or The Market to turn themselves into providers of raw materials or a handful of saleable commodities – after all, this was era which saw the birth of the banana republic. But, I thought as I ploughed through the book… what was the alternative?

Could undeveloped nations have turned their backs on ‘international capitalism’ and continued as agrarian peasant nations, or resisted the western imperative to become ‘nations’ at all and remained general territories ruled by congeries of local sheikhs or tribal elders or whatever?

At what stage would it have been possible to divert the general trend of colonial takeover of the developing world? How would it have happened? Which British leader would have stood up and said, ‘This is wrong; we renounce all our colonies and grant them independence today?’ in the1870s or 1880s or 1890s? What would have happened to the sub-continent or all those bits of Africa which Britain administered if Britain had simply packed up and left them in 1885?

As to all the wealth accumulating in Britain, among its sizeable cohort of ship-owners, traders, factory owners, bankers, stockbrokers and what not. On what basis would you have taken their wealth away, and how much? Half? All of it and shot them, as in Bolshevik Russia?

Having seized the wealth of the entire ‘bourgeoisie’, how would you then have redistributed it to the bedouin in the desert or the native peoples of Australia or the Amazon, to the workers on the rubber plantations, in the tin and gold mines, in the sugar fields, to squabbling tribes in central Africa? How could that have been done without a vast centralised redistribution system? Without, in fact, precisely the centralising, bureaucratic tendencies of the very capitalist system Hobsbawm was criticising?

And who would administer such a thing? Having worked in the civil service for over a decade I can tell you it would take hordes of consultants, program managers, project managers and so on, who would probably be recruited from the host country and make a packet out of the process?

And when was all this meant to happen? When, would you say, the awareness of the wrongs of the empire, or the wrongs done to the ‘undeveloped world’ became widespread enough to allow such policies to be enacted in a democracy where the government has to persuade the majority of the people to go along with its policies? In the 1860s, 70s, 80s?

Live Aid was held in 1985, just as Hobsbawm was writing this book, and which I imagine brought the issue of Third World poverty and famine to the attention of even the dimmest members of the population. But did that global event abolish poverty, did it end inequality and injustice in in the Third World? No, otherwise there would have been no need for the Live 8 concerts and related charity efforts 30 years later, in 2005. Or the ongoing efforts of all the industrialised nations to send hundreds of millions of dollars of support to the Third World every year (hence the furore surrounding the UK government cutting back on its foreign aid budget this year.) Not to mention the continuous work of thousands of charities all across the ‘developing world’.

When you look at the scale of activity and the amounts of money which have been sent to developing countries since the Second World War, it makes you wonder how much would be enough? Should every citizen of every industrialised nation give, say, half their annual earnings to people in the Third World? To which people? In which countries? To India, which has invested tens of billions in a space program? To China, which is carrying out semi-genocidal policy of incarceration and mass sterilisation in its Xinjiang province? Do we need to take money from the British public to give it to Narendra Modi or Xi Jinping? Who would manage that redistribution program, for whatever civil servants and consultants you hired to make it work would earn much, much more than the recipients of the aid.

Student excitement, adult disillusion with Hobsbawm

When I was a student, reading this trilogy educated me about the broad industrial, economic and social forces which created and drove forward the industrial revolution in the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, doing so in thrilling style, and for that I am very grateful. Hobsbawm’s books highlighted the way that, through the 1850s and 1860s, capitalism created an ever-richer class of ‘owners’ set against a rapidly growing number of impoverished workers; how the industrial and financial techniques pioneered in Britain spread to other Western nations; how the industrial system evolved in the 1880s and 1890s into a) a booming consumer society in the West and b) the consolidation of a system of colonial exploitation around the world.

I had never had the broad trends of history explained so clearly and powerfully and excitingly. It was a memorable experience.

But rereading the books 40 years later, I am now painfully aware that the simplistic Marxist concepts Hobsbawm uses to analyse his period may certainly help to elucidate it, but at the same time highlight their own ineffectiveness.

The confidence that a mass working class movement which will rise up to overthrow the inequalities of the West and liberate the developing world, that this great liberation is just around the corner – which is implicit in his numerous references to 1848 and Marx and the Commune and Lenin – and that all it needs is a few more books and pamphlets to spark it off….goes beyond boring to become sad. Although the historical facts he describes remain as relevant as ever, the entire ideology the books are drenched in feels terribly out of date.

Democracy not the blessing it is cracked up to be

In chapter 4 Hobsbawm discusses the politics of democracy. Throughout he takes it for granted that extending the franchise to all adults would result in the revolutionary change he supports. He starts his discussion by referencing the powerful German Social Democratic Party (founded back in 1863) and the British Labour Party (founded in 1900) and their campaigns for universal suffrage, as if giving the vote to ‘the working class’ would immediately lead to a social revolution, the end of inequality and exploitation.

Only in the chapters that follow does he slowly concede that new mass electorates also helped to create new mass, populist parties and that many of these catered not to the left at all, but to right-wing nationalist ideas of blood and Volk. For example, the notorious Karl Luger, mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, whose Christian Social Party espoused populist and antisemitic politics which are sometimes viewed as a model for Adolf Hitler’s Nazism.

In fact it had already been shown that universal male suffrage not only didn’t lead to socialist revolution but the exact opposite, when, in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution which overthrew the French monarchy, the French granted universal male suffrage and held a presidential election in which the opera bouffe candidate, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, promptly won with 74% of the entire male adult vote, and then went on to win the plebiscite held after his 1851 anti-leftist coup with 76%.

So any educated person knew in the 1850s that extending the franchise did not, in and of itself, lead to red revolution. Often the opposite. (This is a point picked up in Richard Shannon’s book The Crisis of Imperialism 1865 to 1915 which quotes umpteen later Victorian politicians and commentators arguing against extending the franchise precisely because they’d seen what it led to in France, namely the election of a repressive, right wing autocrat.)

Hobsbawm’s excited description of the way the ‘scary’ working class were ‘threatening’ bourgeois hegemony, were on the brink of ‘seizing power’ and righting the world’s wrongs, underplays the extent to which universal suffrage led:

  1. directly to the rise of populist nationalist anti-left wing governments
  2. and to the fragmentation of the left into ‘reformists’, prepared to compromise their radical principles and ally with liberal parties in order to get into parliament, and the die-hards who held out for radical social change

In other words, extending the franchise led to the exact opposite of what Hobsbawm hopes. Something borne out after the Great War, when the franchise was drastically extended to almost all adults in most European countries and the majority of European governments promptly became either right-wing or out-and-out dictatorships. Mussolini won the 1924 Italian general election; Hitler won the largest share of the vote in the Weimar Republic’s last election. Or Hungary:

In January 1920, Hungarian men and women cast the first secret ballots in the country’s political history and elected a large counterrevolutionary and agrarian majority to a unicameral parliament. (Wikipedia)

Switching from Hobsbawm altogether to the present day, 2021, any reader of the English left-liberal English press must be struck how, since the Brexit vote, it has stopped being a taboo subject to suggest that quite possibly a large proportion of the British electorate is thick and uneducated (terms you frequently meet in the Guardian newspaper). You can nowadays read plenty of ‘progressive’ commentators pointing out that the great British electorate was persuaded, in voting for Brexit (2016) and Boris (2019), to vote for populist right-wing demagoguery and against their own best interests as working people. I have read so many commentators pointing out that it is the very conservative working class communities who voted for Brexit who are most likely going to suffer the prolonged consequences of economic dislocation and decline.

In other words, right now in 2021, you can read representatives of the left openly stating that universal franchise, one person one vote, not only doesn’t lead to the socialist paradise Hobsbawm implies it will, but the opposite – rule by right-wing populists.

As far as I can remember, thoughts like this would have been utterly taboo in the 1980s, or have immediately identified you as a right-wing conservative. But now I read comments like this every day in the Guardian or New Statesman.

So – this is the recent experience and current political discourse I bring to reading Hobsbawm’s chapter about democracy and which makes me think his assumption, his faith, his Marxist belief, that simply expanding the franchise to all adults would of itself bring about social revolution and justice and equality is too simplistic.

  • It doesn’t correlate with the historical fact that, as soon as the franchises of most European nations had been radically expanded (after the Great War), lots of them became very right-wing.
  • It doesn’t speak to our present situation where, it’s true that no-one is openly suggesting restricting the franchise, but many progressives are questioning whether the universal franchise produces the optimum results for a nation and its working class. Trump. Brexit.

The world is not as we would like it to be.

My opposition to Hobsbawm’s teleology

I am a Darwinian materialist. I believe there is no God and therefore no purpose or direction to human lives or events. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. Shit happens, people try to cope. Obviously shit happens within a complex web of frameworks and structures which we have inherited, it takes a lot of effort to disentangle and understand what is going on, or what we think is going on, and sometimes it may happen in ways some of which we can broadly predict. But ‘events, dear boy, events’ are the determining feature in human affairs. Take Afghanistan this past week. Who knew? Who expected such a sudden collapse?

This isn’t a very profound analysis but my aim is to contrast my preference for a theory of the unpredictable and chaotic nature of human affairs with Hobsbawm’s profound belief in Marxist teleology, meaning the very nineteenth century, rationalist, scientistic belief that there are laws of history and that human societies obey them and that they can be predicted and harnessed.

Teleology: the doctrine of design and purpose in the material world.

Teleology is the belief that if you shave away all the unfortunate details of history, and the peculiarities of culture, and the impact of charismatic individuals, in fact if you pare away enough of what makes people people and societies societies, you can drill down to Fundamental Laws of History. And that Karl Marx discovered them. And that these laws predict the coming collapse of capitalism and its replacement by a wonderful classless society. And that you, too, can be part of this future by joining the communist party today for the very reasonable online registration fee of just £12!

Anyway, the teleology (‘sense of direction, meaning or purpose’) which is a vital component of Marxism, the confidence in an inevitable advent of a future of justice and equality, which underpins every word Hobsbawm wrote, evaporated in 1991 and nothing has taken its place.

There will be no Revolution. The ‘capitalist system’ will not be overthrown. At most there will be pointless local revolts like the Arab Spring, revolts which, more than likely, end up with regimes more repressive or anarchic than the ones they overthrew (Syria, Libya, Egypt).

This sort of thing will occur repeatedly in countries which did not enjoy the early or middle benefits of the technological revolutions Hobsbawm describes, countries of the permanently developing world, which will always have largely peasant populations, which will always depend on the export of raw materials (oil being the obvious one), which will always have unstable political systems, liable to periodic upheavals.

The environmental perspective

If there is One Big Thing we do know about the future, it is something which isn’t mentioned anywhere in Hobsbawm’s book, which is that humanity is destroying the environments which support us.

My son is studying biology at university. He says it amounts to having world-leading experts explain the beauty and intricacy of various eco-systems in beautiful places around the planet – and then describing how we are destroying them.

As a result, my son thinks that human civilisation, in its present form, is doomed. Not because of global warming. But because we are killing the oceans, exterminating all the fish, destroying species diversity, wrecking agricultural land, using up all the fresh water, relying more on more on fragile monocultures, and generally devastating the complex web of ecosystems which make human existence possible.

Viewed from this perspective, human activity is, overall, fantastically destructive. And the massive ideological divide Hobsbawm makes between the tradition of the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’, on the one hand, and the revolutionaries, Communards, Bolsheviks and communists he adulates, on the other, fades into insignificance.

We now know that polluting activity and environmental destruction were as bad or worse under communist regimes as they were under capitalist ones. It was the Soviet system which gave us Chernobyl and its extended cover-up. Capitalist ones are at least capable of reform in a way communist regimes turned out not to be. Green political movements are a feature of advanced ‘capitalist’ countries but were suppressed, along with every other form of deviance, under communist governments.

But then again, it really doesn’t matter from a global perspective. Looked at from the planet’s point of view, all human activity is destructive.

So this is why, looking at them from a really high-level perspective, as of aliens visiting earth and reviewing the last couple of centuries, these books no longer make me angry at the wicked ‘capitalist’ exploitation of its workers and entire colonial nations and the ‘heroic’ resistance of the proletariat and the exploited peoples of the colonial nations.

I just see a swarm of humans ruining their habitat and leading, inevitably, to their own downfall.

Hobsbawm’s style

Hobsbawm is very repetitive. He mentions bicycles and cars and so on representing new technologies at least three times. I swear he points out that imperialism was the result of increasing competition between the industrial nations at least half a dozen times. He tells us that a number of Germany’s most eminent revolutionaries came from Russia, namely Rosa Luxemburg, at least four times. He repeats President Porfirio Diaz’s famous lament, ‘Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States’ twice. He tells us twice that western governments were keen to invest in medical research into tropical fevers solely because the results promised to help their officers and administrators survive longer in colonial outposts several times. He repeatedly tells us that Bismarck was the master of maintaining peace between the powers (pp.312 and 318).

The impression this gives is of rambling, repetitive and circular arguments instead of linear, logical ones.

Hobsbawm’s discussions are often very gaseous in the sense that they go on at length, use lots of highbrow terminology, but at the end it’s hard to make out or remember what he’s said. The discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital was long and serious-sounding but I emerged at the end of it none the wiser. The long discussion of sociology in chapter 11 of this book left me none the wiser about sociology except for Hobsbawm’s weird suggestion that, as a social science, it was founded and encouraged in order to protect society against Marxism and revolution. Really?

In a similar spirit, although he uses the word ‘bourgeoisie’ intensively throughout both books, I emerged with no clearer sense of what ‘bourgeoisie’ really means than I went in with. He himself admits it to be a notoriously difficult word to define and then more or less fails to define it.

On a more serious level I didn’t understand his discussion of nationalism in Age of Capital or his discussion of the increasing democratisation in the 1890s in this volume, because they were vague and waffly. It seemed to me that as soon as he left his home turf of economic development, his ideas become foggy and repetitive.

And sometimes he comes over as a hilariously out of touch old buffer:

By 1914 the more unshackled youth in the western big cities and resorts was already familiar with sexually provocative rhythmic dances of dubious but exotic origin (the Argentinian tango, the syncopated steps of American blacks). (p.204)

‘The syncopated steps of American blacks’. No wonder American capitalism was doomed to collapse.

Overall conclusion

Hobsbawm’s books are thrilling because of their scope and range and the way he pulls together heterogenous material from around the world, presenting pages of awe-inspiring stats and facts, to paint a vivid, thrilling picture of a world moving through successive phases of industrialisation.

But he is eerily bereft of ideas. This comes over in the later chapters of both books in which he feels obligated, like so many historians before him, to write a chapter about The Arts. This is not his natural territory and the reader has to struggle through turgid pages of Hobsbawm dishing up absolutely conventional judgements (Van Gogh was an unrecognised genius; the arts and crafts movement was very influential), which are so lame and anodyne they are embarrassing.

I had noticed his penchant for commenting on everything using numbered points (‘The bourgeois century destabilised its periphery in two main ways…’; ‘Three major forces of resistance existed in China…’, ‘Three developments turned the alliance system into a time bomb…’, and many others). Eventually it dawned on me that he produces these nifty little sets of issues or causes or effects instead of having ideas. Lists beat insights.

Considering how fertile Marxist literary and art criticism has been in the twentieth century (cf György Lukács, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Frederick Jameson) it is very disappointing how flat and untheoretical and banal Hobsbawm’s comments about the arts in both books are. In these later sections of each book it is amazing how much he can write without really saying anything. He is a good example of someone who knows all the names and terminology and dates and styles and has absolutely nothing interesting to say about them.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

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The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm (1987)

Summary

This is a very mixed bag of a book. The first quarter or so is a thrilling global overview of the main trends and developments in industrial capitalism during the period 1875 to 1914, containing a vast array of fascinating and often thrilling facts and figures. But then it mutates into a series of long, turgid, repetitive, portentous, banal and ultimately uninformative chapters about social change, the arts, sciences, social sciences and so on, which are dreadful.

And underlying it all is Hobsbawm’s unconcealed contempt for the nineteenth century ‘bourgeoisie’ and their ‘bourgeois society’, terms he uses so freely and with so little precision that they eventually degenerate into just being terms of abuse.

And in his goal of insulting the 19th century ‘bourgeoisie’ as much as possible, Hobsbawm glosses over a huge range of crucial differences – between nations and regions, between political and cultural and religious traditions, between parties and politicians, between classes and even periods, yoking a fact from 1880 to one from 1900, cherry-picking from a vast range of information in order to make his sweeping Marxist generalisations and support the tendentious argument that ‘bourgeois society’ was fated to collapse because of its numerous ‘contradictions’.

But when you really look hard at the ‘contradictions’ he’s talking about they become a lot less persuasive than he wants them to be, and his insistence that ‘bourgeois society’ was doomed to collapse in a welter of war and revolution comes to seem like the partisan, biased reporting of a man who is selective in his facts and slippery in his interpretations.

Eventually you feel like you are drowning in a sea of spiteful and tendentious generalisations. I would recommend literally any other book on the period as a better guide, for example:

It is symptomatic of Hobsbawm’s ignoring specificity, detail and precision in preference for sweeping generalisations about his hated ‘bourgeois society’, that in this book supposedly ‘about’ imperialism, he mentions the leading imperialist politician in the world’s leading imperialist nation, Joseph Chamberlain, precisely once, and the leading British cultural propagandist of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, also only once. These feel like glaring omissions.

When I read this book as a student I was thrilled by its huge perspectives and confident generalisations and breezily Marxist approach. It was only decades later, when I read detailed books about the scramble for Africa, or late-imperial China, or really engaged with Kipling’s works, that I realised how little I actually understood about this period and how much I had been seriously misled by Hobsbawm’s fine-sounding but, in the end, inadequate, superficial and tendentiously misleading account.

Introduction

The Age of Empire is the third and final volume in Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books covering what he termed ‘the long nineteenth century’, from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1798 to the start of the Great War in 1914. This third instalment covers the final 40 years, from 1875 to 1914.

In the previous book, The Age of Capital, Hobsbawm had amply demonstrated that he regards the third quarter of the nineteenth century as marking the triumph of the liberal ‘bourgeoisie’, of the ‘capitalist’ middle classes, in industry and technology and finance and politics and the arts.

Having seen off the attempt to overthrow existing regimes across continental Europe in the failed revolutions of 1848, the continent’s ruling classes experienced from 1850 onwards, a period of spectacular economic, technological, business and trade growth which continued on into the 1860s. This boom period was overseen by laissez-faire liberal governments in most countries and reflected in the widespread, optimistic belief that the steady stream of scientific, technological and industrial innovations would produce an endless progress upwards towards peace and prosperity. It was 25 years of what Hobsbawm insists on calling ‘liberal bourgeois triumph’.

It led to the confident conquest of the globe by the capitalist economy, carried by its characteristic class, the bourgeoisie, and under the banner of its characteristic intellectual expression, the ideology of liberalism. (p.9)

At the end of The Age of Capital he gave a short preview of what was coming up in the next era, and it is a major change in tone and subject. Whereas the pace of scientific and technological innovation accelerated, economically, politically and culturally the period which began around 1875 felt like a very different period, witnessing the collapse of much of the mid-century optimism.

Main features of the period

The Long Depression

The period witnessed a long depression, particularly in agriculture, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. A glut of agricultural produce led to a collapse in prices, rural poverty and loss of revenue for the landowning aristocracies. Cheaper food made life better for all those who lived in cities, so the overall impact was very mixed. Commentators at the time didn’t understand what had led to an apparent stalling in expansion and profits and historians have debated its precise causes ever since.

Protectionism

The Long Depression was the main trigger for many western governments to move rapidly from the mid-century free trade model associated with Liberalism towards protectionism, the imposition of protective tariffs on imports etc, especially by America.

New industries

The textile base of the first industrial revolution continued to be important (witness Britain’s huge exports of cotton to its captive markets in India) but the main industrial economies entered a new era driven by new sources of power (electricity and oil, turbines and the internal combustion engine), exploiting new, science-based materials (steel [which became a general index for industrialisation and modernisation, p.35], alloys, non-ferrous metals), accompanied by numerous discoveries in organic chemistry (for example, new dyes and ways of colouring which affected everything from army uniforms to high art).

Monopoly-capitalism

The depression and the consumer explosion led to small and medium-sized companies being replaced by large industrial corporations, cartels, trusts, monopolies (p.44).

New managerial class

The age of small factories run by their founders and family was eclipsed by the creation of huge industrial complexes themselves gathered into regions linked by communications and transport. Hobsbawm mentions the vast industrial conurbation taking shape in the Ruhr region of Germany or the growth of the steel industry around Pittsburgh in America. The point is that these operations became far too large for one man and his son to run; they required managers experienced at managing industrial operations at scale, and so this gave rise to a new class of high level managers and executives. And to the beginnings of management ‘theory’, epitomised by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor (born 1865 in Pennsylvania) which introduced concepts like, to quote Wikipedia:

analysis; synthesis; logic; rationality; empiricism; work ethic; efficiency and elimination of waste; standardization of best practices; disdain for tradition preserved merely for its own sake or to protect the social status of particular workers with particular skill sets; the transformation of craft production into mass production; and knowledge transfer between workers and from workers into tools, processes, and documentation.

Population growth

Europe’s population rose from 290 million in 1870 to 435 million in 1910, America’s from 38.5 million to 92 million. (All told, America’s population multiplied over five times from 30 million in 1800 to 160 million by 1900.)

Consumer capitalism

This huge population explosion led to a rapid expansion of domestic consumer markets (p.53). There was still much widespread poverty in the cities, but there was also an ever-growing middle and lower-middle-class keen to assert its status through its possessions. This led to an fast-expanding market for cheap products, often produced by the new techniques of mass production, epitomised by the radical industrial organising of Henry Ford who launched his Model T automobile in 1907.

Department stores and chain stores

Another symbol of this explosion of consumer culture was the arrival of the department store and the chain store in the UK (p.29). For example, Thomas Lipton opened his first small grocery shop in Glasgow in 1871 and by 1899 had over 500 branches, selling the characteristic late-Victorian product, tea, imported from Ceylon (p.53; British tea consumption p.64).

Or take Whiteleys, which began as a fancy goods shop opened in 1863 at 31 Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley, employing two girls to serve and a boy to run errands. By 1867 it had expanded to a row of shops containing 17 separate departments. Whiteley continued to diversify into food and estate agency, building and decorating and by 1890 employed over 6,000 staff. Whiteleys awed contemporaries by its scale and regimentation: most of the staff lived in company-owned male and female dormitories, having to obey 176 rules and working 7 am to 11 pm, six days a week.

Mass advertising

The arrival of a mass consumer market for many goods and services led to an explosion in the new sector of advertising. Many writers and diarists of the time lament the explosion of ads in newspapers, magazines and, most egregious of all, on the new billboards and hoardings which started going up around cities.

The poster

Hoardings required posters. The modern poster was brought to a first pitch of perfection during what critics consider ‘the golden age of the poster’ in the 1890s (p.223) (something I learned a lot about at the current exhibition of the poster art of John Hassell at the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner).

Hire purchase and modern finance

New ways for the financially squeezed lower middle classes to pay for all this were invented, notably hire-purchase or instalment payments (p.49).

New popular technologies

Entirely new technologies were invented during the 1880s and 1890s, the most notable being the internal combustion engine and the car, the bicycle, cinema, telephone, wireless and light bulb (pages 19 and 28 and 53).

Competition for resources

New discoveries in industrial chemistry and processes required more recherché raw materials – oil, rubber, rare metals such as manganese, tin and nickel (p.63). The booming consumer market also developed a taste for more exotic foodstuffs, specifically fruits, bananas, cocoa. (Apparently it was only during the 1880s that the banana became widely available and popular in the West.) Where was all this stuff found? In the non-European world.

Imperialism

Growing need for all these resources and crops led to increasing competition to seize territories which contained them. Hence the 1880s and 1890s are generally seen as the high point of Western imperialism, leading up to the so-called Scramble for Africa in the 1880s.

(Interestingly, Hobsbawm notes that the word ‘imperialism’, used in its modern sense, occurs nowhere in Karl Marx’s writings, and only became widely used in the 1890s, many commentators remarking [and complaining] about its sudden ubiquity, p.60.)

Globalisation

During the 1860s and 70s the world became for the first time fully ‘globalised’, via the power of trade and commerce, but also the physical ties of the Railway and the Telegraph (p.13).

The major fact about the nineteenth century is the creation of a single global economy, progressively reaching into the most remote corners of the world, an increasingly dense web of economic transactions, communications and movements of goods, money and people linking the developed countries with each other and with the undeveloped world. (p.62)

During the 1880s and 1890s this process was intensified due to the growth of direct competition between the powers for colonies and their raw materials. Until the 1870s Britain ruled the waves. During this decade international competition for territories to exploit for their raw resources and markets became more intense (p.51). Imperialism.

A world divided

The final mapping of the world, its naming and definitions, led inevitably to the division of the world into ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’ parts, into ‘the advanced and the backward’.

For contemporaries, the industrialised West had a duty to bring the benefits of civilisation and Christianity to the poor benighted peoples who lived in all the ‘undeveloped’ regions. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, says that the representatives of the developed part almost always came as ‘conquerors’ to the undeveloped part whose populations thus became, in Hobsbawm’s phrase, ‘victims’ of international capitalism.

On this Marxist reading, the imperial conquerors always distorted local markets to suit themselves, reducing many populations to plantation labour reorganised to produce the raw materials the West required, and eagerly helped by the tiny minorities in each undeveloped country which were able to exploit the process and rise to the top as, generally, repressive local rulers (pages 31, 56, 59).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many nations which had finally thrown off the shackles of colonialism found themselves still ruled by the descendants of these collaborationist elites, who modelled themselves on their former western rulers and still ran their countries for the benefit of themselves and their foreign sponsors. Further, truly nationalist revolutions were required, of which the most significant, in my lifetime, was probably the overthrow of the American-backed Shah of Iran by Islamic revolutionaries in 1978.

New working class militancy

Working class militancy went into abeyance in the decades 1850 to 1875, politically defeated in 1848 and then made irrelevant by a general raising of living standards in the mid-century boom years, much to Marx and Engels’ disappointment.

But in the 1880s it came back with a vengeance. Across the developed world a new generation of educated workers led a resurgence in working class politics, fomented industrial unrest, and a significant increase in strikes. There was much optimistic theorising about the potential of a complete or ‘general’ strike to bring the entire system to a halt, preliminary to ushering in the joyful socialist paradise.

New socialist political parties, some established in the 1860s or 1870s, now found themselves accumulating mass membership and becoming real powers in the land, most notably the left-wing German Social Democratic Party, which was the biggest party in the Reichstag by 1912 (chapter 5 ‘Workers of the World’).

Incorporation of working class demands and parties into politics

The capitalist class and ‘its’ governments found themselves forced to accede to working class demands, intervening in industries to regulate pay and conditions, and to sketch out welfare state policies such as pensions and unemployment benefit.

Again, Germany led the way, with its Chancellor, Bismarck, implementing a surprisingly liberal series of laws designed to support workers, including a Health Insurance Bill (1883), an Accident Insurance Bill (1884), an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill (1889) – although, as everyone knew, he did this chiefly to steal the thunder from the German socialist parties.

Whatever the motives, the increasing intervention by governments across Europe into the working hours, unemployment and pension arrangements of their working classes were all a world away from the laissez-faire policies of the 1850s and 60s. Classical liberalism thought the forces of the market should be left entirely to themselves and would ineluctably resolve all social problems. By the 1880s it was clear to everyone that this was not the case and had instead produced widespread immiseration and poverty which states needed to address, if only to ensure social stability, and to neutralise the growing threat from workers’ parties.

Populism and blood and soil nationalism

But the rise of newly class-conscious workers’ parties, often with explicit agendas to overthrow the existing ‘bourgeois’ arrangements of society, and often with an internationalist worldview, triggered an equal and opposite reaction: the birth of demagogic, anti-liberal and anti-socialist, populist parties.

These harnessed the tremendous late-century spread of a new kind of aggressive nationalism which emphasised blood and soil and national language and defined itself by excluding ‘outsiders. (Chapter 6 ‘Waving Flags: Nations and Nationalism’).

Some of these were harmless enough, like Cymru Fydd, founded in Wales in 1886. Some would lead to armed resistance, like the Basque National Party founded 1886. Some became embroiled in wider liberation struggles, such as the Irish Gaelic League founded 1893. When Theodor Herzl founded Zionism with a series of articles about a Jewish homeland in 1896 he can little have dreamed what a seismic affect his movement would have in the second half of the twentieth century.

But the point is that, from the time of the French Revolution through to the 1848 revolutions, nationalism had been associated with the political left, from La Patrie of the Jacobins through the ‘springtime of the peoples’ of the 1848 revolutionaries.

Somehow, during the 1870s and 80s, a new type of patriotism, more nationalistic and more aggressive to outsiders and entirely associated with the political Right, spread all across Europe.

Its most baleful legacy was the crystallisation of centuries-old European antisemitism into a new and more vicious form. Hobsbawm makes the interesting point that the Dreyfus Affair, 1894 to 1906, shocked liberals across Europe precisely because the way it split France down the middle revealed the ongoing presence of a stupid prejudice which bien-pensant liberals thought had been consigned to the Middle Ages, eclipsed during the Enlightenment, long buried.

Instead, here it was, back with a vengeance. Herzl wrote his Zionist articles partly in response to the Dreyfus Affair and to the advent of new right-wing parties such as Action Francaise, set up in 1898 in response to the issues of identity and nationhood thrown up by the affair. (In a way, maybe the Dreyfus Affair was comparable to the election of Donald Trump, which dismayed liberals right around the world by revealing the racist, know-nothing bigotry at the heart of what many people fondly and naively like to think of as a ‘progressive’ nation.)

But it wasn’t just the Jews who were affected. All sorts of minorities in countries and regions all across Europe found themselves victimised, their languages and dialects and cultural traditions under pressure or banned by (often newly founded) states keen to create their own versions of this new, late-century, blood and soil nationalism.

The National Question

In fact this late-nineteenth century, super-charged nationalism was such a powerful force that socialist parties all across Europe had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that it caught the imagination of many more members of the working classes than the socialism which the left-wing parties thought ought to be appealing to them.

Hobsbawm’s heroes Lenin and ‘the young Stalin’ (Stalin – yes, definitely a man to admire and emulate, Eric) were much concerned with the issue. In fact Stalin was asked by Lenin in 1913 to write a pamphlet clarifying the Bolsheviks’ position on the subject, Marxism and the National Question. Lenin’s concern reflected the fact that all across Europe the effort to unify the working class into a revolutionary whole was jeopardised by the way the masses were much more easily rallied in the name of nationalistic ambitions than the comprehensive and radical communist overthrow of society which the socialists dreamed of.

In the few years before Stalin wrote, the Social Democratic Party of Austria had disintegrated into autonomous German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Italian and Slovene groupings, exemplifying the way what ought to be working class, socialist solidarity was increasingly undermined by the new nationalism.

Racism

Related to all these topics was widespread racism or, as Hobsbawm puts it:

  • Racism, whose central role in the nineteenth century cannot be overemphasised. (p.252)

This is the kind of sweeping generalisation which is both useful but questionable, at the same time. Presumably Hobsbawm means that racism was one of the dominant ideologies of the period, but where, exactly? In China? Paraguay? Samoa?

Obviously he means that racist beliefs grew increasingly dominant through all strands of ‘bourgeois’ Western ideology as the century progressed, but even this milder formulation is questionable. In Britain the Liberals consistently opposed imperialism. Many Christian denominations in all nations very powerfully opposed racism. For example, it was the incredibly dedicated work of the Quakers which underpinned Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807.The missionaries who played such a vital role in funding expeditions into Africa did so to abolish the slave trade there and because they thought Africans were children of God, like us.

A key point of the Dreyfus Affair was not that it was a storming victory for antisemites but the reverse: it proved that a very large part of the French political and commenting classes, as well as the wider population, supported Dreyfus and condemned antisemitism.

It is one thing to make sweeping generalisations about the racism which underpinned and long outlasted the slave system in the American South, which Hobsbawm doesn’t hesitate to do. But surely, in the name of accuracy and real historical understanding, you have to point out the equal and opposite force of anti-racism among the well organised, well-funded and widely popular anti-slavery organisations, newspapers and politicians in the North.

I can see what Hobsbawm’s driving at: as the nineteenth century progressed two types of racism emerged ever more powerfully:

1. In Europe, accompanying the growth of late-century nationalism went an increasingly bitter and toxic animosity against, and contempt for, people identified as ‘outsiders’ to the key tenets nationalists included in their ideology (that members of the nation must speak the same language, practice the same religion, look the same etc), most obviously the Jews, but plenty of other ‘minorities’, especially in central and eastern Europe, suffered miserably. And the Armenians in Turkey, right at the end of Hobsbawm’s period.

2. In European colonies, the belief in the intrinsic racial superiority of white Europeans became increasingly widespread and was bolstered in the later period by the spread of various bastardised forms of Darwinism. (I’ve read in numerous accounts that the Indian Revolt of 1857 marked a watershed in British attitudes, with the new men put in charge maintaining a greater distance from their subjects than previously and how, over time, they came to rationalise this into an ideology of racial superiority.)

I don’t for a minute deny any of this. I’m just pointing out that Hobsbawm’s formulation is long on rousing rhetoric and short on any of the specifics about how racist ideology arose, was defined and played out in actual policies of particular western nations, in specific times and places – the kind of details which would be useful, which would aid our understanding.

And I couldn’t help reflecting that if he thinks racism was central to the 19th century, then what about the twentieth century? Surely the twentieth century eclipses the nineteenth on the scale of its racist ideologies and the terrible massacres it prompted, from the Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, the Nazi Ostplan to wipe out all the Slavs in Europe, the Japanese massacres in China, the anti-black racism which dominated much of American life, the Rwandan genocide, and so on.

Hobsbawm confidently writes about ‘the universal racism of the bourgeois world’ (p.289) but the claim, although containing lots of truth a) like lots of his other sweeping generalisations, tends to break down on closer investigation and b) elides the way that there were a lot of other things going on as well, just as there were in the twentieth century.

The New Woman

In 1894 Irish writer Sarah Grand used the term ‘new woman’ in an influential article, to refer to independent women seeking radical change and, in response, the English writer Ouida (Maria Louisa Rame) used the term as the title of a follow-up article (Wikipedia).

Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to the rise of women during the period 1875 to 1914. He makes a number of points:

Feminism

The number of feminists and suffragettes was always tiny, not least because they stood for issues which only interested middle-class women, then as now. The majority of British women were poor to very poor indeed, and most simply wanted better working and living conditions and pay. It was mostly upper-middle-class women who wanted the right to vote and access to the professions and universities like their fathers and brothers.

The more visible aspects of women’s emancipation were still largely confined to women of the middle class… In countries like Britain, where suffragism became a significant phenomenon, it measured the public strength of organised feminism, but in doing so it also revealed its major limitation, an appeal primarily confined to the middle class. (p.201)

Upper class feminism

It is indicative of the essentially upper-class nature of suffragism and feminism that the first woman to be elected to the UK House of Commons was Constance Georgine Gore-Booth, daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Georgina, Lady Gore-Booth.

Nancy Astor

In fact, as an Irish Republican, Constance refused to attend Westminster, with the result that the first woman MP to actually sit in the House of Commons, was the American millionairess, Nancy Astor, who took her seat after winning a by-election for the Conservative Party in 1919. Formally titled Viscountess Astor, she lived with her American husband, Waldorf Astor, in a grand London house, No. 4 St. James’s Square, or spent time at the vast Cliveden House in Buckinghamshire which Waldorf’s father bought the couple as a wedding present. Hardly the stuff of social revolutions, is it? The exact opposite, in fact. Reinforcing wealth and privilege.

Rentier feminism

In the same way, a number of the most eminent women of the day lived off inherited money and allowances. They were rentiers, trustafarians aka parasites. When Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman writer needed ‘a room of her own’ what she actually meant was an income of about £500 a year, ideally provided by ‘the family’ i.e. Daddy. The long-running partnership of the founders of the left-wing Fabian Society, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, was based on the £1,000 a year settled on her by her father at her marriage i.e. derived from the labour of others, mostly working class men (p.185).

New secretarial jobs for women

Alongside the rise of a new managerial class, mentioned above, the 1880s and 1890s saw the rise of new secretarial and administrative roles, what Hobsbawm neatly calls ‘a tribute to the typewriter’ (p.201). In 1881 central and local government in Britain employed 7,000 women; by 1911 that number was 76,000. Many women went into these kinds of secretarial jobs, and also filled the jobs created by the spread of the new department and chain stores. So these years saw a broad social change as many middle-class and lower middle-class single women and wives were able to secure reasonable white collar jobs in ever-increasing numbers (p.200).

Women and education

Education began to be offered to the masses across Europe during the 1870s and 80s, with Britain’s patchy 1870 Education Act followed by an act making junior school education compulsory in 1890. Obviously this created a huge new demand for schoolteachers and this, also, was to become a profession which women dominated, a situation which continues to this day. (In the UK in 2019, 98% of all early years teachers are women, 86% of nursery and primary teachers are women, 65% of secondary teachers are women. Overall, 75.8% of all grades of school teacher in the UK are female).

Secretarial and admin, shop staff, and schoolteachers – the pattern of women dominating in these areas was set in the 1880s and 1890s and continues to this day (p.201).

Women and religion

Hobsbawm makes one last point about women during this period which is that many, many more women were actively involved in the Christian church than in feminist or left-wing politics: women were nuns, officiants in churches, and supporters of Christian parties.

Statistically the women who opted for the defence of their sex through piety enormously outnumbered those who opted for liberation. (p.210)

I was surprised to learn that many women in France were actively against the vote being given to women, because they already had a great deal of ‘soft’ social and cultural power under the existing system, and actively didn’t want to get drawn into the worlds of squabbling men, politics and the professions.

Even within the bourgeois liberal society, middle class and petty-bourgeois French women, far from foolish and not often given to gentle passivity, did not bother to support the cause of women’s suffrage in large numbers. (p.209)

Feminism, then as now, claimed to speak for all women, a claim which is very misleading. Many women were not feminists, and many women were actively anti-feminist in the sense that they devoutly believed in Christian, and specifically Catholic, values, which allotted women clear duties and responsibilities as wives and mothers in the home, but also gave them cultural capital, privileges and social power.

These anti-feminists were far from stupid. They realised that a shift to more secular or socialist models would actually deprive them of much of this soft power. Or they just opposed secular, socialist values. Just as more than 50% of white American women voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and did so again in 2020.

Sport

Hobsbawm mentions sport throughout the book. I knew that a lot of sports were given formal rules and their governing bodies founded during this era – the Football League founded in 1888, Rugby Football Union founded 1871, Lawn Tennis Association founded 1888. I knew that tennis and golf in particular quickly became associated with the comfortably off middle classes, as they still are to this day.

But I hadn’t realised that these sports were so very liberating for women. Hobsbawm includes posters of women playing golf and tennis and explains that clubs for these sports became acceptable meeting places for young women whose families could be confident they would be meeting ‘the right sort’ of middle class ‘people like them’. As to this day. The spread of these middle class sports significantly opened up the number of spaces where women had freedom and autonomy.

The bicycle

Another new device which was an important vehicle for women’s freedom was the bicycle, which spread very quickly after its initial development in the 1880s, creating bicycle clubs and competitions and magazines and shops across the industrialised world, particularly liberating for many middle class women whom it allowed to travel independently for the first time.

Victorian Women's Cyclewear: The Ingenious Fight Against Conventions - We Love Cycling magazine

The arts and sciences

I haven’t summarised Hobsbawm’s lengthy sections about the arts and literature because, as a literature graduate, I found them boring and obvious and clichéd (Wagner was a great composer but a bad man; the impressionists revolutionised art by painting out of doors etc).

Ditto the chapters about the hard and social sciences, which I found long-winded, boring and dated. In both Age of Capital and this volume, the first hundred pages describing the main technological and industrial developments of the period are by far the most interesting and exciting bits, and the texts go steadily downhill after that.


Credit

The Age of Empire: 1875 to 1914 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback edition.

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  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

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  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed Spanish communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won the civil war.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution during the communist purges.

Communism in England

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen (2010)

The setup

Cherry Pye aged 22 (p.396) is a teenage American pop star. She was born Cheryl Gail Bunterman and her ambitious mother, Janet Bunterman was entering her for into talent competitions from the age of 4. Little Cheryl’s voice was poor but her parents compensated by dressing her in provocative clothes and getting her dance lessons from a local stripper. They changed her name to the soft porn-sounding Cherry Pye when she got her first speaking part in a TV show, aged 14, wearing a ‘dubious buckskin cowgirl outfit’ (p.5).

Cherry was spotted by pop impresario, closet paedophile and owner of Jailbait Records, Maury Lykes, who gave her 3 months of intensive coaching and released her first single on Cherry’s birthday. It wasn’t actually Cherry on the single, she was never going to be able to sing, they hired a backing singer and concentrated on teaching Cherry how to dance and lip sync ahead of the lucrative tours organised to cash in on the record (p.20). Together, Janet and Maury developed a special look to establish Cherry’s brand:

‘The BLS brand’, Maury called it – barely legal slut, the essential ingredient being an air of insouciant fuckability. (p.279)

But as a result of all this, Cherry (‘a simpleton, shallow as a thimble’, p.281), at the age of 22, has developed a major drug habit. More accurately, she scarfs down whatever is on the table, be it alcohol, pills or powders, even birdseed! The narrative opens as Cherry’s lying on the floor of a premier room at the luxury Stefano hotel, throwing up (again), worried over by her team, her mother, a young actor she spent the early evening with, her pair of identical twins PR advisers, Lila and Lucy Lark (backstory p.172), and her tough minder, Lev, formerly of the Israeli Mossad. They’re all waiting for the private paramedics to arrive, take Cherry to a private hospital and pump her stomach. Again.

It’s such a recurrent problem that Cherry’s team have a tried and tested procedure in place. For some time they have been using a body double, a lookalike, an actress who is the spitting image of Cherry, to fill in for her, to make public appearances, to attend celebrity parties and so on, when the real Cherry is either in intensive care or at one of her many visits to a rehab clinic.

This double is named Ann DeLusia, aged 24 (p.212), an aspiring actress. She gets fed up sometimes by being at Cherry’s mother’s beck and call, but the pay is good, $800 a week (p.100).

The other character we’re introduced to early on is a paparazzo, Claude ‘Bang’ Abbott, 44 (p.316), a fat, unhygienic slob, but a very good photographer with deep experience in newspaper work (‘back in the day when newspapers mattered’, p.25) before he switched to the more lucrative career of snapping celebrities’ unguarded moments.

Bang got a hot tip about Cherry’s latest overdose from hotel staff, but was then fooled into following and photographing Ann, the lookalike, who was brought out the back of the hotel on a gurney, rather than the real Cherry who was smuggled out the front into a nondescript car. Only as he closes the ambulance doors, does the paramedic reveal that Bang has been ‘had’, much to his irritation.

Bang is convinced that pretty soon Cherry is going to do an Elvis and expire on the john, overdose or generally ‘buy the farm’ i.e. die young – and he wants to have built up a portfolio of photos of the teen star in all possible states of wastage so that he’ll be in a position to bring out an entire coffee table book recording her sorry descent. Think Marilyn. He’ll make a fortune, be able to retire. That’s the plan. Wasted Cherry is his pension.

Pause to assess

So, as usual, Hiaasen is extremely effective at introducing us very quickly to quite a gallery of characters, each drawn with swift precise descriptions, so that within 40 or so pages an entire corrupt and rancid world has been vividly depicted.

As to the subject matter, regular readers of my blog know that I got progressively more disillusioned by the novels of William Gibson as he turned his back on his science fiction roots and wrote longer and longer books which aspire to be thrillers but also feature characters from fictional rock bands, thrillers in which the lead characters wear ‘cool’ leather jackets, ripped t-shirts and shades. Gibson’s early science fiction novels are strange and mind-expanding, while his later ‘thrillers’, especially in their tiresome depictions of the cool world of rock bands, are lame and clichéd.

So I am, in theory, bored of novels set in the shallow, cynical, drug-addled world of pop stars and celebrities and so, in theory, ought to dislike this one, too. Not only do I have a general aversion to this milieu, but Hiaasen has already set one novel in the corrupt world of contemporary music, Basket Case, centring on the murder of a leading rock star who, it turns out, was done in by his scheming wife. It’s a little disappointing that Hiaasen has resorted to covering the same territory twice in the space of just four novels.

On the other hand, it is still a Hiaasen novel, which means that even when it has hints of being a retread, it is outrageously funny. Instead of Gibson’s po-faced and pretentious world, Hiaasen’s savagely amoral frolics skip along at a cracking pace, the dialogue is razor sharp, the characters continually taking your breath away with their stunning amorality.

Unexpected alliances, arguments and double crosses come thick and fast. It is, in other words, continuously shocking and surprising and very entertaining. The characters aren’t rude, they are off-the-scale amoral, cynical, manipulative, grotesquely threatening and violent.

Take the moment when Maury, frustrated at Cherry’s behaviour, has treated himself to a quiet night in, and invites three underage prostitutes round to tie him to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets. That’s when he gets a phone call from Chemo, the grotesque bodyguard he’s hired to find Cherry when she disappears (again). Hence Chemo’s call, except Chemo announces that now he’s found the errant pop star, he’s not going to return her unless he gets more money, not least because she taunted him (Chemo) about his grim appearance. Hence the call:

Chemo said, ‘You wanna see her alive, then double my pay.’
‘Unfuckingbelievable.’
‘She called me “Waffle Face”. Normally I’d kill a person for that. Normally I’d stick a frog gig up their nostrils and yank their tongue out by the roots.’ (p.117)

It’s a kind of peak Hiaasen moment: the rancid pedophile agent being tied down and whipped by pubescent girls having to negotiate with a 6 foot nine freak hitman about the ransom for a drug-addled, talentless celebrity.

Presumably there are, somewhere in America, a few people who aren’t cynical, amoral, criminal, corrupt and violent scumbags, who don’t instantly resort to fury and physical violence whenever their slightest whim or plan is thwarted. Presumably. Somewhere. But not in Carl Hiaasen’s novels.

Plot developments

As a result of the Stefano hotel meltdown, Cherry is sent to rehab, again and Janet tells Ann DaLusia she can take a few days off, so she drives down to Florida which she’s always wanted to see. She takes the Card Bridge route onto Key Largo and is whizzing round a corner when she sees a man standing in the middle of the road, swerves and goes careening off the road, through a stand of trees and crashes into a creek. Oops.

Anna wakes up to find herself being tended by Skink, SKINK, Hiaasen’s most popular recurring character, the semi-deranged former Florida governor-turned-eco-vigilante, complete with plastic shower cap, long grey braids and dazzling smile.

As in each of the books he appears in, the author gives us a slightly new version of Skink’s backstory as well as a variation on his motivation, namely the depthless outrage he feels at the rape of the wild countryside he grew up in:

The cherished wild places of his childhood had vanished under cinder blocks and asphalt, and so, too, had the rest of the state been transformed – transformed by greedy suckworms disguised as upright citizens. From swampy lairs Skink would strike back whenever an opportunity arose, and the message was never ambiguous. (p.197)

But it doesn’t do to sentimentalise Skink. He is a violent vigilante. At one point he’s hiding out under a pier down on a beach late at night and happens to hear two men manhandling a drunk woman down onto the sand and then knocking her down with a view to raping her. Skink moves in and the paramedics who are later called to the scene are impressed to discover that each of the men has a compound fracture in every limb (p.239). Skink did that, not just beat them up but carefully broke their bones. We are told that from time to time he eats the pets of disagreeable people (p.262). He ties up a Haitian cabbie and steals his cab when it suits him (p.264). He is not a sweetheart. He is genuinely dangerous.

Having pulled her from her crashed car, Skink takes her off to his remote camp in the forest, tends to Ann’s light injuries and feeds her some roadkill alligator tail, which isn’t as disgusting as she first fears. But when she asks to be taken back to civilisation, Skink explains that first she has to help him with his latest scam. This is to hold up a bus full of corrupt and wealthy investors who are engaged in yet another of the countless crooked and environmentally ruinous property developments which Hiaasen’s novels are full of.

Skink tells Ann to step into the road and flag down the bus carrying the developers from the airport to a private hotel facility. Then he leaps out of the bushes and onto the bus terrorises them with a gun, and tying the most corrupt of them, Jackie Sebago, to a tree with a sea urchin stuffed down his pants and rammed into his ‘nutsack’.

By the time the cops arrive, Ann is ready with her story that her car crashed then she doesn’t remember anything till stumbling onto the bus. The cops believe her, let her go, and Ann returns to civilisation pretty dazed by this weird encounter.

Meanwhile, at the Rainbow Bend rehab centre Cherry has met Methane Drudge, drummer with fictional band the Poon Pilots (p.51) (shades of William Gibson and fictional rock bands with lame names).

Together they break out of the rehab grounds, scrambling over the five foot wall. Methane twists his ankle landing, and limps badly as he follows Cherry to the road. Here they discover a car parked and Cherry knocks on the window. The electric window winds down to reveal none other than Cherry’s fanatical paparazzo devotee, Bang Abbott, who is amazed at Cherry’s sudden apparition and staggered when she asks him to drive her to the airport. There is some typically brutal comedy when lame Methane knocks on the back door window asking to be admitted to the car but Cherry blithely tells Abbott to drive off and leave him behind.

Not only that but when they get to the airport and she whistles up her private jet, Cherry impulsively invites Abbott onto the plane to accompany her. So the excited fat man grabs his several cases of expensive cameras and jogs up the steps. And not only that, but half way across America (flying from California to Florida) bored, Cherry whips off her jeans and straddles him, presumably pulling out his pecker, because they have sex. It only last for four minutes but leaves Abbott seriously dazed and confused. (Women on top, riding a man in the ‘cowgirl position’, is Hiaasen’s favourite fictional sexual position, it recurs in most of the novels, most memorably enacted by Dr Rosa Campesino on a steel mortuary table in Bad Monkey.)

This brief intimacy doesn’t stop Abbott, when Cherry falls asleep, getting his camera out and knocking off some shots of Cherry lying asleep and snoring and unbuttoned and sprawled across her plane seat. These will prove excellent photos for the photo-biography he’s planning of her decline and fall.

However, all this comes to naught because, when they land in Miami, her chauffeur-driven car is waiting, the driver loads all the bags, including all Abbott’s cameras, and then, just as with Methane, she simply drives off before Abbott can get into the car, leaving Abbott stamping and fuming on the airport tarmac. Later, with an actor she’s picked up at an upscale nightclub, she reviews Abbott’s photos and blithely deletes them one by one.

Meanwhile, there is a significant development on the bodyguard front. The novel opens with young Cherry being bodyguarded by a tough goon named Lev, who is ex-Mossad. But goaded by Cherry’s mom one too many times, he quits, thus giving her manager, Maury Lykes, a headache about finding a replacement. Luckily he knows a country and western star, Presley Aaron, who went way off the rails for a period of addiction but turned his life around and is now fit and buff and recording again. The turnaround was managed by his brothers who hired a tough minder to guard him. It is this minder which Maury now hires to look after Cherry. She needs some tough love.

And as soon as Maury and Janet Bunterman are introduced to him in a nightclub, the seasoned Hiaasen reader immediately realises that Cherry’s new bodyguard is none other than the freakish sociopath nicknamed ‘Chemo‘ who we first met in novel 3 of the series, 1989’s Skin Tight.

Chemo, as you might imagine with Hiaasen, has a very detailed and freakish backstory (summarised on page 252 ff.). Suffice to say that Chemo stands 6 foot 9 inches tall, his face was fried in a freak accident during some minor plastic surgery (the dermatologist had a stroke and instead of excising a small growth, ended up applying the electric doodad across his whole face so that his face now looks like a bowl of rice krispies). Which explains why Chemo is in a permanently very bad mood. Most bizarre of all, after he had his hand bitten off by a barracuda in Skin Tight, he replaced it not with a prosthetic attachment, but with a battery-powered strimmer or weed whacker as the Americans call it.

Comedy

All this and more has been conveyed in less than the first hundred pages. The forms of Hiaasen’s comedy can be categorised into half a dozen or so levels or types:

Plots

Most obvious is the overall shape of the plots where grotesque and preposterous, farcically improbable events take place, such as the body double actress getting caught up in Skink’s hijacking of a coach full of property investors.

Characters

The characters themselves are often so grotesque as to be funny in themselves, such as the famously strong but half-deranged eco-vigilante Skink or the strimmer-handed, beanpole bodyguard Chemo. Although it is noticeable that this pair, the most garish and entertaining of all the characters in the book, were invented decades earlier (in 1987 and 1989, respectively).

Universal corruption

On a less extreme level, it is funny the way the narrator describes the semi-criminal or immoral activities of his characters, activities which most of us would regard as beyond the pale, but which the narrator mentions with a deliberate casualness designed to emphasise the rancid, rotten, corrupt and immoral culture he is dissecting. Such as the throwaway remark that Maury Lykes is not only a successful pop impresario but has a ‘criminal fondness for underage girls’ (p.20) and the later scene, only a few paragraphs long, in which he arranges for three underage girls who he’s promised parts in his next show, to come to his house, tied him with parachute cords to his bed and take turns spanking him with badminton rackets to the sound of the Disney track, ‘We’re all in this together‘ (p.116). That really is a standout scene.

On a quieter note, it is so casually said you barely notice it when Cherry tells the young actor Tanner Dane Keefe that he wants her to accompany her on her upcoming tour because: ‘I don’t like screwing strangers, especially roadies.’ (p.119) The implication being that, obviously, she has to be screwing someone, almost continuously, right, she’d just prefer if it was someone she knew or liked. That level of moral abandonment.

Compared to that level of debauchery it seems fairly bland, but nonetheless way out of most people’s orbit of experience, when the narrator explains that Janet put ups with her husband, Ned’s, long-standing bisexual affair with another married couple, a) because he’s good with Cherry’s earnings and b) because she herself ‘is sweatily involved’ with her 30-year-old tennis coach (p.68).

Everyone in Hiaasen novels is unfaithful. In fact it’s not clear that the idea of faithfulness exists any more. Why get married if you don’t want to have affairs?

Amorality

All the characters casually demonstrate the most breath-taking cynicism, putting into words ideas and collocations of incident and intention which are way beyond the average person’s experience:

Chemo was the first convicted murderer that Maury Lykes had ever put on the payroll, and he hoped the man understood the concept of boundaries. (p.116)

The comedy extends from what you could call high-level cynicism, through a hierarchy of criminality and casual amorality, down to the more gutter level of sheer venomous abuse, which all these horrible people routinely treat each other to:

Lev said, ‘I hope you get cancer of the schlong. I hope it falls off in your hand.’ (p.30)

It made me laugh because it’s so outrageous, and that summarises Hiaasen’s schtick in a phrase. These novels are outrageous festivals of amorality, horribleness and insult.

Seething narrator

Vituperation isn’t limited to the characters. The narrator himself boils with rage at the corrupt and scuzzy world around him. Within pages of starting reading the reader is forced to acclimatise to Hiaasen’s super-cynical attitude and abrasive phraseology. As a tiny example he doesn’t refer to Miami International airport but to ‘the clusterfuck known as Miami International’ (p.27), conveying three levels of implication:

  1. dropping the ‘airport’ because he assumes the reader is hip enough to get the reference
  2. letting the reader know his attitude to Florida’s ‘advanced’ i.e. heavily polluting and environmentally destructive infrastructure
  3. signalling that he isn’t shy about using latest American vernacular = there’s going to be a lot of swearing

So, there is comic entertainment to be enjoyed at multiple levels:

  • plot
  • character
  • the narrator’s seething cynicism
  • his characters’ cynical attitude
  • their whip-smart repartee
  • or plain old abuse

Silly nightclub names

It is a typical minor running gag running through his books that Hiaasen – not, we suspect, a great fan of cocaine-fuelled nightclubs full of drug dealers, crooked lawyers and property developers – gives comic names to the fictional nightclubs which appear in his novels.

Skin Tight featured a club named ‘the Gay Bidet’ where a whole series of ludicrously named punk bands performed and where Chemo, incidentally, worked part-time as a bouncer. Strip Tease featured a strip joint which changes its name from ‘The Eager Beaver’ to ‘Tickled Pink’, and in other books there’s the club named ‘Lube’. In the same spirit, in this novel Cherry meets young Tanner Dane Keefe at a South Beach nightclub named ‘Abscess’ (p.118), which brought a smile to my lips.

Later on, we are taken to a gimmicky nightclub named ‘Club Ortho’ where everyone has to wear a cast and pretend to have a broken bone (p.244). In the second half the fictional nightclub named ‘Pubes’ gets namechecked and in fact provides the setting for the rather feeble shooting of Abbott, which more or less ends the main narrative (see below).

As it happens, William Gibson also has a fondness for silly nightclubs, in his case less notable for their names than for their ‘wacky’ gimmicks, such as the bubblegum-themed bar or the Kafka-themed club or the restaurant with a full-sized replica Russian tank parked in the middle, The Western World. It is characteristic that Gibson’s comic bar ideas are strained and pretentious whereas Hiaasen’s are gleefully obscene. I go for glee every time.

More plot

Abbott wants his cameras back and wants access to Cherry. Therefore he stakes out the hotel Cherry has checked into and waits till Cherry exits the hotel and gets into the waiting limousine. He cleverly hijacks this by getting a bellhop to drop a load of cases in front of the car, blocking its way, so that the chauffeur and Chemo the bodyguard get out to angrily help the bellhop pile them back onto a luggage trolley, only to hear the limo reverse and skid off with Abbott at the wheel. So far, so clever except that… it is not Cherry in the limo but Ann the body double!

The central part of the novel will be built around this mistake, with Abbott at first not knowing what to do with the body double and then contacting Janet Bunterman offering to return Ann in one piece in exchange for one day with Cherry. (They worry that he’s a pervert but we know it’s not for sex purposes but in order to take a massive portfolio of photos which he can use when, as he expects, she ‘buys the farm’ i.e. dies).

Negotiations are then carried out between Abbott and Chemo, representing the Bunterman family and the manager, Maury, Abbott having first drugged Ann and locked her up in the boot of a hire car.

In fact there’s a whole sequence of meetings between the two men, with Chemo then reporting back Abbott’s demands to his employers, who carefully weigh the options. One option they consider is to let Ann die since, when she is returned a) she’s unlikely to want to continue the job b) if she spills the beans her story will go bigger in the press than Cherry’s comeback album and tour, so she represents a financial threat to all of them.

Now, when Skink released Ann, he gave her his mobile number and, during a moment to herself in a motel toilet, Ann manages to phone Skink and tell him she’s been kidnapped. Skink, though old enough to be her father, had taken a liking to Ann during their couple of days together in the wild Everglades, and so now he sets out on a quest to track her down and release her.

I expected this whole situation would lead up to a mega-violent confrontation but it doesn’t, instead it’s something of an anti-climax. The Buntermans eventually agree to Abbott’s terms, namely that Abbott gets a whole day with Cherry in Keefe’s house (which is on the detached, millionaire enclave of Star Island, which gives the novel its title) to do a serious photoshoot, all under the watchful eye of the baleful Chemo. In the end, all pretty reasonable and non-violent.

Nonetheless, on the way towards this event, the plot at moments feels like the Maltese Falcon, with increasingly complex double crosses all round: without telling Janet Maury pays Chemo to kill Abbott, but Abbott persuades Chemo they can make a fortune by selling the camera full of great fashion photos Abbott has just taken (Abbott is genuinely a good photographer). Meanwhile Abbott, while he had kidnapped Ann, took a load of photos of her with her hair over her face so she looks like Cherry, handcuffed to a bathroom sink, apparently shooting up with a syringe, and he’s gotten in touch with the editor of a tabloid newspaper with a view to selling them.

It all gets very convoluted, a pell-mell of crosses and double crosses, and yet I became steadily more detached, and a bit bored.  Maury tells Chemo to kill Abbott. Then to kill Ann. But Skink has by this time tracked down Ann and become her de facto bodyguard. Anyway, Chemo’s come to admire her spunky attitude. He thinks she’s a ‘pisser’, which is a term of praise.

The climax of the book is disappointing by Hiaasen’s standards. Cherry slips out of the house where she’s being kept to dry out before her upcoming tour and new album release and goes to the legendary nightclub Pubes. Here Ann is waiting for her and confronts her with what she intends to be the dazzling revelation that she, Ann, has been the spoilt little girl’s double for all these years and her parents never even told her.

But Cherry doesn’t respond with a sudden epiphany, a realisation of how shallow her existence is and a determination to turn her life around. She just attacks Ann, knocks her to the dancefloor (they’re in a nightclub) and starts feebly pummeling her until Chemo wades in, picks her up and takes her away.

Skink had come to the club with Ann (Ann had bought him a swanky suit and persuaded him to cut off his long grey braids) and he now picks her up and leaves with her.

Abbott is also at the club and furious with himself because he missed the shot of Cherry being carried out by Chemo. But then Ann calls out to him amid the scrum of paparazzi and he is just about to take her photo when a hired killer in the crowd takes out a gun and shoots him in the ass.

What? Why? Because in the complexity of the second half of the plot, Abbott had forgotten to pay off one of the many narcs and contacts he employs to routinely tip him off about celebs at hotels and bars. He has hundreds of them, he always owes them little sums of money, they’re calling and hassling him all the time, and he has been a little busy involved in a kidnapping scam. All this explains why he’s persistently ignored the calls of one contact in particular, and this guy has gotten so irritated that he’s hired a hitman to shoot Abbott.

So that’s the (rather thin) explanation for this climactic shooting except that… the man fails. They aren’t standing yards apart which would allow for a clean shot, they are smothered together in a heaving crowd and so the man only manages to shoot Abbott in the buttock. The shot disperses the crowd, including the hitman. Abbott is taken to hospital, the bullet removed, the damage to his big guts repaired. It’s all rather… inconsequential.

Tying up loose ends

Cherry’s album flops and the tour doesn’t sell out, so she changes her name and moves into TV. Ann works on a new career. Abbott returns to papping. With the revival of the property market, Chemo gives up being a gun for hire and returns to his former career selling mortgages (broad Hiaasian satire at the type of person who sells mortgages i.e. deranged murderers).

Skink disappears back into the boondocks, though it’s worth emphasising that the novel contains a distinct strand about a detective who has become interested in him. Remember Jackie Sebago the crooked property developer from the start of the book, whose coach Skink hijacks and down whose pants he stuffs a sea urchin? Well, one of the investors in his property development, a no-nonsense crim named Shea, insists he wants his money back and when Sebago is unable to return it ($850,000) because he’s spent it, Shea hires a hitman who kills Sebago by shooting him through the chest with a speargun.

The point being that the cops scour the locality of the murder and stumble across Skink’s camp in the outback. Detective Riley pieces together scattered appearances by Skink: holding up the coach, a speedboat is stolen from nearby; the testimony of the drunk woman who was saved from rape by a scruffy stranger on the beach; a man of the same description seizing the little pet dog out of the arms of a woman in a hotel lobby who was describing how her husband and friends clubbed some dolphins to death; and so on.

Riley gets so far as tracking Skink down to the Miami hotel where he’s staying with Ann, solely in the capacity of her protector. But as Detective Riley interviews, the couple Skink gives blissfully, surreally oblique answers and the cop doesn’t get anywhere. He’s looked up Skink’s record on computer and knows he served in Vietnam. He knows Skink now lives out in the woods not harming anyone. Well, unless they’re scumbags like Jackie Sebago. Detective Riley decides there’s no case against Skink, no evidence, and leaves town wishing him well.

This investigation-of-Skink storyline starts out being quite threatening, as if Skink might actually be arrested, but then becomes amusing but so inconsequential I wondered whether it was setting itself up for some kind of sequel. Will Detective Riley appear in subsequent novels and become Skink’s pursuer?

In this it’s a little like the other storylines, which all fizzle out. Cherry survives, Chemo survives, Ann survives, Skink survives and Abbott survives. They all go their separate ways. Is that it? Bit disappointing…

The banalisation of sex and drugs and guns

1. Sex

Fifty years ago, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a generation of idealists thought that, if we only took all our clothes off, acknowledged our sexuality, forsook sexual jealousy and indulged in free love, the world would become a better place. The results, like any great social change, were complex and mixed. Without doubt many millions of people experienced genuine personal liberation and the breaking  of taboos around gender and sexuality have been transformative.

On the other hand, the notion that simply getting naked and having sex changes or improves society has been roundly disproved. Arguably, the opposite has happened, and this novel contains numerous instances tending to indicate the way sex has ceased to have any special moral or psychological significance and become utterly debased, a bodily function with as much glamour or spiritual significance as having a crap.

Cherry is in one sense an embodiment of the complete degradation of sex to an empty transaction. She straddles and rides fat Abbott to orgasm because she’s bored. She whines to the young actor Keefe that she wants him to come on tour so she can fuck him instead of having to fuck the roadies, the implication being that she has to fuck someone on a daily, almost hourly basis. We are told that she got round her tough Israeli bodyguard, Lev, by fellating him on a regular basis or letting him ‘bone’ her with a platinum stud through the head of his penis. To get a room service boy at the Stefano to smuggle in drugs to her room (after Chemo has been made her bodyguard with strict instructions to keep her clean) Cherry offers the boy a blowjob.

In Hiaasen’s American sex has become a form of currency, just another version of the cash nexus.

And it isn’t just Cherry for whom sex is a mindless addiction. Abbott, aroused by remembering the mile high shag with Cherry, gets an erection while sitting in his car and whines that the steering wheel is getting in the way, so he shuffles over to the passenger seat to have a wank.

Knocking one off, squeezing one out, wanking, is as casual a business as wiping your nose, and as empty of meaning. From keeping close tabs on her, Chemo gets to know that when she has no-one to fellate or to bone her, Cherry sets her iphone to vibrate and puts it against her crotch so each incoming text or call stimulates her pussy (p.372).

At the bourgeois end of the spectrum, we learn that Cherry’s parents’ marriage is a purely business arrangement: her father has a long standing menage-a-trois with a Danish couple, the sophisticated Jorgensens, while her mom is boffing her tennis coach. So far, so normal, for American marriages.

At the other, more extreme end of the spectrum, we learn that the young actor Tana Dane Keefe has a part in the latest Tarantino movie where he plays a necrophiliac, ‘a corpse-diddling longboarder’ (p.205). It all reminds me of the old rugby song, ‘Bestiality’s best, boys, bestiality’s best.’

The trouble with this kind of thing, with the adolescent urge to shock, is that eventually there’s nowhere left to go. It is possible to hollow out human existence, the meaning of human life, entirely, until it’s completely empty. This is why I despise Tarantino and his ilk. It’s slavery for laughs, it’s murder for entertainment, it’s the death of any attempt to maintain manners, respect and subtlety. It is an insult to the human spirit. But hey, it wins Oscars!

So an infinitely more liberated approach to sex than was conceivable for most people in the 1960s has not led to a happier society or happier individuals, has it? Instead of being the road to freedom that the sexual liberationists imagined, sex has turned out to be just one more dead end, one more rut which only confirms our bad habits and bad decisions.

Relying on sex for a ‘fulfilled’ life is like relying on alcohol or any other drug. Sex has become just another activity like drinking or playing cards which is sometimes meaningful and significant but is mostly humdrum and often just a habit, a potentially smelly, selfish or disease-spreading habit. For the most part, for most of the scumbag characters in Hiaasen’s novels, sex has been emptied of any sacral or numinous meaning that it once had.

Hence the superficially funny but ultimately sad set of phrases which hip Americans have developed  to categorise different types of fuck, the mercy fuck, the sport fuck and the speed fuck (p.338). Fucks are now as coolly categorised and named as brands of handbag.

2. Drugs

Something similar for drugs. It’s a long time since the hippies recommended that we turn on, tune in and drop out. Since then we went through the cocaine wave of the 1970s, the crack cocaine wave of the 1980s, and for the last few decades America has been enjoying the growing tide of the opioid epidemic.

Cherry and her buddies are symptomatic of a generation which has no reservations whatsoever about drugs and so has become greedily, selfishly addicted to whatever it can get its hands on. Thus Cherry quite literally swallows any pills available, including at one mildly comic moment, a handful of dog de-worming pills, doggie laxatives (p.370).

In Cherry and young Tanner Dane Keefe’s hands drug culture has just become a pointless addiction, and their readiness to take anything, anything at all to get off their faces, is about as spiritual or psychologically enlightening as sitting in a pool of your own vomit stuffing your face with Big Macs.

Thus Cherry bribes the room service boy to bring her every illicit substance he can get his hands on and this adds up to: Zanax, tramadol, Ecstacy, Bayer gelcaps, Ex-Lax, banana nut Cheerios and a bottle of Stoli vodka (p.317) all of which she proceeds to swallow, vomiting copiously some time later.

3. Guns

Something similar is true of guns, by which I mean that, in stories like this, shooting people is just an everyday activity which some people do as casually as drinking a beer or having a wank. Shooting someone, like taking drugs or casual sex, has (not for all, but for a fair percentage of the characters) been emptied of any particular meaning.

This really came home in the scenes where Abbott has kidnapped Ann. He asks about her nose, which got hit during the kidnap, asks to borrow headache pills, discusses Cherry’s personality, threatens to shoot her, takes her into a MacDonalds for a meal, explains the realities of life as a paparazzo, threatens to shoot her. It’s just another topic of conversation thrown in among other rather humdrum chats. ‘Pass the ketchup. Oh yeah, if I can’t get the ransom for you, I’ll have to kill you, OK.’ It has ceased to register as a big deal.

In one of the hotels where Abbott is keeping Ann hostage, they actually have a tussle over his gun which Ann grabs hold of, and in their half-assed struggle, the gun accidentally goes off and shoots the tip of Abbott’s forefinger off, the one he uses to press the shutter on his camera, which is vital to his career.

It is remarkable how neither of the characters are particularly upset about this and neither is the author. Not only does it typify the casual approach to guns and gun injuries, it demonstrates something else as well. In previous novels something really grotesque would have happened to Abbott for him having been the baddie all the way through, but in this one, it’s as if Hiaasen can’t be bothered to come up with anything really macabre. The climax of the novel is that the bumbling kidnapper gets shot in the bum.

The casual way modern Americans think about shooting and killing is demonstrated in the closing stretches of the novel where Cherry’s manager, Maury, first of all considers letting Abbott kill the kidnapped Ann, then pays Chemo to kill Abbott, then (when he doesn’t), orders him to kill Ann.

Nothing personal, it’s all purely business, these are just tactics to protect Cherry’s ‘brand’ and not jeopardise the upcoming tour and CD release. In this world, killing people is a legitimate business strategy.

My point is that the threats to kill someone come quite casually in among a range of other humdrum conversational topics; that the activity of shooting someone either to wound or kill them; have become utterly banal and empty and meaningless, as trivial as offering them a cigarette or holding a door open for them or blowing their head off.

Bang Abbott shook his head. ‘Unbelievable. I may have to shoot the fucker.’ (p.257)

Maybe shoot the fucker. Maybe not. Meh. Whatever.

Repetition

I can’t help noticing that this novel repeats several ideas or tropes from previous books. The entire notion of satirising the music industry had previously formed the basis of novel 9 in the series, Basket Case. Admittedly, that was about grown-up rock and adult rock stars whereas this novel is about the distinct and different teenybop market and focuses on a stroppy teenage pop star. But still, it’s fundamentally about the same glossy, empty, pop music-fashion-nightclubbing scene.

The return of Skink and Chemo can either be seen as the welcome reprise of old favourites or… as a sign that Hiaasen was running out of ideas for the kinds of grotesque characters which infested his earlier fiction. Any way you cook it, Chemo is a straight retread from an earlier, much more imaginatively varied and powerful novel.

What crystallised this sense of repetition was when I read in chapter 12 that Cherry’s two PR people, the twins Lucy and Lila Lark, had a long-burning ambition to have plastic surgery in order to be transformed into completely identical twins. The thing is, this is very similar to the storyline in Sick Puppy about the two leggy East European ‘models’ Katya and Tish who are housed, fed and watered by the slimy ex-drug smuggling property developer Robert Clapley because he wants to use plastic surgery to turn them into an identical pair of Barbie dolls. Or, as he puts it with typically Hiaasenesque crudeness:

‘How often in a guy’s lifetime does he have a chance to get sucked off by two semi-identical six-foot dolls?’ (p.137)

Feels like the same basic idea.

And there’s another repeat of an earlier book: Chemo becomes so incensed by airhead Cherry’s repetition of the same limited lexicon, that he retrieves a cattle prod he bought soon after leaving prison, and gives her electric shocks every time she says ‘like’, ‘awesome’, ‘sweet’, ‘sick’, ‘totally’, ‘hot’ and ‘dude’ (p.301). Quite quickly he has to only gesture towards the prong and she corrects herself.

This is pretty funny, and an apt satire on the spread of airhead Legally Blonde lexicon among America’s teens, but we’ve been here before. In Stormy Weather Skink hijacks a couple of newly-weds and fits the asinine husband with a dog-training electric collar. Every time he steps out of line Skink inflicts a massive electric shock which knocks the husband unconscious. Quite quickly the husband anticipates the shocks, eventually falling and rolling on the floor before Skink’s even administered a shock.

Same basic idea. Just saying that, as I read on, I had a disconcerting sense of these repetitions and echoes which, when combined with the lame-ass ending, couldn’t but help suggesting a falling off in Hiaasen’s fertility.

The decline and fall of American journalism

Another recurring theme is Hiaasen’s laments for the decline of old-style journalism, which have featured in many of his novels and, taken together, form an interesting commentary on the decline and fall of American journalism. Early on the narrator laments a time:

Back in the day when newspapers mattered. (p.25)

As I’ve read Hiaasen’s novels through the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s, many aspects of the society he describes have changed (more drugs, more explicit sex, the internet) but one of these threads is his comments on how journalism and the newspaper industry have changed over that period, consistently for the worse.

The early comments (and because the first novel features a star journalist, his managing editor and other journalists in a busy Miami newspaper, it is stuffed with them) are idealistic. Hiaasen thinks it is journalism’s place to hold corrupt politicians and business-people to account. In the 1990s he laments the advent of accountants who reshaped many American newspapers into money-making machines by cutting back on actual journalism and replacing it with features, competitions and prizes.

Thus Basket Case is narrated by a down-on-his-luck journalist Jack Tagger who boils over with contempt for the ‘smooth yuppie’ Race Maggad III who has bought the traditional, old-school newspaper he (Jack) works for and is only interested in it as a money-making machine. For Jack there’s still something worth fighting for in the idea of a civic-minded journalism which serves its community.

But by the time we come to this novel, in 2010, the fat paparazzo, Bang Abbott, is dealing with hard-nosed editors who are themselves having a hard time competing with the internet. The internet presents two threats:

  1. It is immediate, unlike the creaking, 24-hour delay of hard copy newspapers.
  2. And it is democratic, in the sense that absolutely anyone can photograph or take a video of a newsworthy event and upload it in seconds and it will have gone viral before a journalist has even uncapped their pen or turned on their laptop.

It’s a tiny but interesting detail that the editor of the magazine (National Eye) which is the best customer for Abbott’s sleazy paparazzo photos, is not American but Australian, and that he learned his trade on Fleet Street – the implication being that the British press is much more hard-nosed, business-like and ethic-free than US journalism (pages 106 to 111). Certainly we in Britain have to be reminded from time to time just what corrupt scumbags a lot of our journalism is (e.g. the phone hacking scandal).

Obviously, in the 11 years since this novel came out in 2010, things have got significantly worse for newspapers everywhere and the press in America now faces an existential crisis.

I wonder whether Hiaasen’s laments about the death of journalism continue in his more recent books…

Final thought

In terms of satire, Sick Puppy is maybe Hiaasen’s most effective novel because it really explains the workings of corrupt property development and politicians, and the precise way both interact, doing behind the scenes deals, creaming off money, the arrangements whereby all the politicians involved get payoffs and backhanders, and how the tax-paying public are dazzled by the handful of civic amenities which are used to disguise all of this. The novel is festooned with Hiaasen’s trademark grotesquery and violence and macabre deaths and so on, but it also contains this genuinely fascinating deep dive into how this kind of corruption really works.

By contrast, Star Island is, on the face of it, a satire on the discrepancy between the squeaky clean world of teen pop stars and the reality of drug addiction, nymphomania and bulimia. You could also argue it contains a parallel satire about the gutter values of tabloid newspapers or celebrity magazines, with their endless appetite for photos of celebs in embarrassing or squalid situations and so on.

And yet, it doesn’t dig deep. A leading pop start turns out not to be able to sing and to be a nightmare of drugs and sex. Hmm. Tell me something I didn’t already know. Ditto paparazzi. Everyone knows those magazines are trash and the paps who cater for them are reptiles. I remember Spitting Image satirising tabloid journalists as pigs in suits back in the 1980s.

That’s why I don’t like fiction about these subjects, whether by William Gibson or Carl Hiaasen – simply because the subjects feel old and tired and over-familiar right from the start.


Credit

Star Island by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010. All references are to the 2012 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen (1997)

‘He’s a whole different person,’ Trish whispered.
‘Good,’ Krome said. ‘He needed to be.’
(Lucky You, page 446)

Carl Hiaasen’s campaign to make you loathe and despise Americans for their stupidity, greed and violence continues in this, his seventh solo novel, set among the slimy lowlifes, retards, rednecks and religious nutcases of South Florida.

Each Hiaasen novel has a central theme from which a complex matrix of crazy events and related sub-themes unfurl. This one is the Florida state lottery. On the week in question there are two winners of the lottery who have to share the prize money of $28 million and this is enough to trigger a 480-page firestorm of greed, crime and corruption.

JoLayne Lucks

One of the winners is JoLayne Lucks, 35, a physically fit black woman who lives in a trailer park (Hiaasen’s favourite location for his collections of lowlifes and criminals). JoLayne’s hobby is breeding turtles. She has 46, all different species, in an aquarium outside her trailer (so they’re pretty small, 3 or 4 inches long with heads ‘the size of grapes’, p.379).

Bode and Chub

But what spices things up and drives the plot is that the other winners are a pair of educationally sub-normal rednecks: Bodean James Gazzer, 31, five foot six, who’s made a career of blaming everyone else for everything that’s gone wrong in his short shitty life, who’s recently gotten interested in anti-government militias of the Waco Siege and Oklahoma City bombing variety (backstory pages 18 to 22), and so who’s drifted into the white supremacist ‘culture of hate and hardcore bigotry’ (p.20). Bode makes a living creating forged documents.

A couple of months before the start of the narrative, Bode had hooked up with Chub, a beer-gutted six-foot-two, ponytailed, unshaven, unwashed, smelly slob (full name: Onus Dean Gillespie, backstory page 96). The two bond over a shared contempt for:

government, taxes, homosexuals, immigrants, minorities, gun laws, assertive women and honest work. (p.3)

In fact, as the story opens Bode has just decided to set up a militia named The White Rebel Brotherhood (p.36). For the rest of the novel Hiaasen has a lot of fun attributing every prejudice and bigotry going to the short, angry, venomous Bode, and his dumb, grunting sidekick, Chub. It is the couple’s ignorant but venomous race-hatred and bigotry which is the real subject of this novel.

Having read half a dozen Hiaasen novels I fully expected that Bode would end up committing a string of heinous crimes and then being grotesquely killed in the end and, having just completed it, I can tell you that’s exactly what happens.

Tom Krome the journalist

Hiaasen was and is a rather renegade, award-winning journalist and his first novels feature some very renegade journalists who, you imagine, are like fictional versions of himself let completely off the leash. The series starts with the protagonist of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, the award-winning journalist Skip Wiley, who goes beyond the bounds of ordinary journalism by setting up an eco-terrorist group.

Here in Lucky You there’s another of these journalist incarnations, this one named Tom Krome. Krome emerges as the decent bloke hero of the story. He also allows Hiaasen to share his thoughts on what’s happened to the newspaper business in the 20 or so years since he joined it back in the 1970s. This is that the newspaper industry has been eviscerated by accountants, keen to dispense with almost all the editorial content and to sack seasoned journalists, in order to turn newspapers large and small into efficient, advertising-revenue-generating machines with the result, as his managing editor comments, that the news gets softer and softer, contains less and less real journalism, more and more fluff about pageants and fetes, until nobody bothers reading it any more (p.321).

Interesting to read laments about the death of journalism and newspapers from 25 years ago. Newspapers are, nowadays, of course, in an even more parlous condition.

Anyway, Tom Krome is depicted as a good journalist, with old-school instincts for following a story. with the result that he’s found himself fired from a number of papers till he’s ended up at the minor league Register, where he has to answer to an idiot named Sinclair, Assistant Managing Editor of Features and Style, and stuck covering weddings and divorces. It rankles – a lot!

Grange, town of religious visions

Now JoLayne Lucks lives in an area called Grange, which is notorious for its religious sightings and miracles.

Grange’s meagre economy had come to rely on the seasonal Christian tourist trade. (p.420)

We know this from a number of storylines and events:

  1. Tom Krome’s new girlfriend, Katie (who is cheating on her husband, Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr.) is a True Believer in miracles and healing.
  2. One of JoLayne’s neighbours in the Grange trailer park, Demencio, operates a religious fraud: he owns and displays a four-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary with a reservoir of scented water inside, which is operated by a footpump so that the waiting queue of the faithful each get to kiss the statue and see miracle-working tears trickle from its yes. That’s before or after they’ve bought some of Demencio’s over-priced mementos and merchandising, which is where he makes his money.
  3. But Demencio isn’t the only one. There are various other religious fradusters around who capitalise on the town’s reputation, not least a failed carpenter by the name of Dominick Armado who, one drunk night, at a very low ebb in his private life, drilled perfect half centimetre holes in both his hands and now touts them as miraculous stigmata, charging a few dollars a time to allow credulous pilgrims to touch them, pray to them or have their photo taken with God’s Chosen One (p.378).

As a character wonders, late in the novel, having encountered all this religious nuttery, and after Armado has insisted on showing her the new holes he’s drilled in his feet, surely there must be something which explains all the freakery:

Surely this could be explained – a radiation leak in the maternity ward; a toxin in the town’s water supply. (p.460)

Early plot

The plot gets going when Tom Kromer is reluctantly sent out out to Grange to interview some blah blah lottery winner on what he thinks will be the epitome of boring small-time journalism. But Krome is won over by JoLayne’s style and balls. He arrives to find her front door is open and, on knocking and entering, discovers her in her bath, butt-naked, covered in bubbles and holding a shotgun pointing at his groin. So: quite ballsy, then. JoLayne listens to what Krome’s got to say, then politely refuses to be interviewed or to feature in any news reports. He goes back to his motel to ponder his next move.

What drives the novel is that the two thick racists, Bode and Chub, are not content with getting half the week’s winnings. They want it all. So Bode insists that they, also, drive out to Grange, They quickly establish that there’s only one lottery ticket outlet in the little town, at a branch of the Grab’N’Go chain, and they work out that JoLayne is the likely winner by cross-questioning the shops’ dim assistant named ‘Shiner’, the useless son of a born-again Christian mother.

Bode and Chub drive to JoLayne’s trailer and beat the crap out of her in a bid to get her ticket. Their plan is that Bode will present to the lottery authorities with one ticket and claims half the $28 million, and Chubb will present with JoLayne’s and claim the other half. The lottery tickets are sold anonymously, there are no names attached, so whoever is holding it is the owner.

Bode and Chub savagely beat JoLayne, introducing a sickening note of violence into the book at an early stage. They punch her in the breasts and groin and push the barrel of their revolver into her mouth, demanding to know where the ticket is. But not before JoLayne uses her long fingernails to give them cuts on the face, to rip out half of Bode’s eyelid and half of Chub’s eyebrow. She’s feisty.

It’s a stalemate until the rednecks have a brainwave: they shoot one of her precious baby turtles and threaten to shoot all the rest, at which point JoLayne gives in and hands over the ticket. They beat her up a bit more and leave. On the way out of town they revisit the Grab N’Go where they recruit the idiot Shiner to their fledgling White Rebel Brotherhood, explaining to him that all his failure in life is due to a conspiracy of fags and blacks in Washington DC, and (the reason for making a fuss of him) persuading him to lie about serving JoLayne the winning ticket.

Tom Kromer is woken up in the dark of his Grange motel bedroom. It takes him a while to realise it’s JoLayne who’s snuck into his room. When she won’t let him switch on the light and he puts his hands up to her face, he realises she’s been really badly beaten.

She takes him back to her trailer which is wrecked, with blood everywhere. Tom begs JoLayne to go to the cops but she refuses. Tom eventually realises it’s because she thinks if the cops start searching for them, the two hoodlums will destroy the ticket and she needs that ticket. Why?

And here enters the environmental angle, which is such an important element in Hiaasen’s fiction and which had been missing from the narrative up to this point. Turns out JoLayne works as an assistant to Dr Cecil Crawford, Grange’s vet (p.51) and has a natural feel for animals. In her time off she likes to sneak into Simmons Wood, a lovely piece of unspoilt wilderness and observe the wild animals (backstory p.137).

The point is that one day JoLayne is horrified to see a notice up warning that Simmons Wood is going to be demolished and turned into a shopping mall. She wants the lottery winnings not for herself but in order to buy Simmons Wood and preserve it for future generations. So that’s why she doesn’t want to call the cops or have her story written up in the papers; because that might force the thieves to destroy the ticket and she needs that money.

(The wood is owned by an old man, Lighthorse Simmons, who used to love to hunt there. He’s gotten old now and on his last trip was accidentally shot by another hunter. Now it’s his two greedy children, Leander Simmons and Janine Simmons Robinson, who are selling the land off and greedily hoping to make the maximum profit.)

Mary Andrea Finlay Krome

Tom has a wife, Mary Andrea Finlay, who he’s been trying to divorce for four years. She fancies herself a leading actress, although she only appears in provincial theatres. Tom’s attorney, Dick Turnquist, has been trying to serve papers for divorce on her for years, but it’s one of the running gags of the story that Mary is constantly on the move, one step ahead of the lawyer and his endless quest. The narrative is punctuated by the lawyer periodically phoning up Tom for another bulletin on how he just failed to nab her yet again.

Katie and the judge

Then there’s Katie, wife of Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. Tom has been having an affair with Katie for precisely 14 days, a whirlwind of sex and guilt, because Katie, in between blowjobs, is also a devout Christian, who has championship sex and then days of chronic guilt.

Because Kromer doesn’t ring her that night, from the motel in Grange where he’s staying, Katie has a fit of religious conscience and decides to admit to her husband she’s having an affair. More than that, in a fit of compulsive honesty she lists to the judge every sexual encounter she’s had with Krome, starting with the first blowjob she gave him in his car. American Christians are such fun! She’s also motivated by the knowledge that her 40-something husband is screwing both his legal secretaries, Willow and Vine. Katie hopes that if she confesses to her adulteries, he will too. Of course he doesn’t. But he is furious and instantly decides to take revenge.

Which is why, when Krome gets back to Miami from his brief trip to Grange, he discovers all the windows in his house shot out. Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. had gotten his legal assistant, Champ Powell, to do it.

When Tom phones her, Katie drives right round, explains what has happened, apologises, says she thinks it’s best, under the circumstances, to call off their affair and, as an afterthought, mentions that she thinks her husband, in his psychopathic jealousy, is going to have Krome killed. Great. Just great. A few blowjobs and fancy fucks and now his life is in danger, thinks Tom.

When Krome checks back into the office of the Register his numbskull editor, Sinclair, declares the lottery story dead and assigns him something else. Krome refuses to take it. He wants to track down whoever beat up JoLayne, he wants to turn it into a real journalistic investigation. Sinclair refuses to budge. So Krome quits and walks out. He calls JoLayne and tells her he wants to help her get her ticket back and save Simmons Wood.

The mob

Then there’s the mafia connection. Hiaasen goes into some detail to explain that the people who want to buy Simmons Wood – who Leander Simmons and Janine Simmons Robinson are so keen to sell to – are actually organised crime.

Richard ‘The Icepick’ Tarbone is a major player in organised crime in Chicago. He regularly creams off large amounts from the accounts of a big union called the Central Midwest Brotherhood of Grouters, Spacklers and Drywallers International. One of the ways this is done is for the union to buy up land and make a big show of investing millions in some project, only to encounter a string of problems, such as lack of labour, strikes, shortage of materials, failure to secure the right permits and so on, which eventually let the project plough into the sand. No-one looks too closely at the accounts to see that the actual losses are over and above the ones posted – and that is the amount creamed off by the union (the process is explained in detail on page 139 and is, according to Hiaasen, common practice in Florida real estate deals: ‘Gangsters bought and sold real estate in Florida every day’, p.440).

Trouble is the realtor in charge of the sale, is Clara Markham, has now received a new bid for the land. It’s from JoLayne who, as soon as she realised she’d won the lottery, got in touch and said she’s outbid all other bidders to buy the wood.

The union’s lawyer aka the Icepick’s fixer, is Bernard Squires. When news comes in that there’s a rival bid the Icepick tells Squires to get his ass down to Florida and sew up the deal in person. Trouble is the realtor in question, Clara Markham, happens to be a good friend of JoLayne’s, not least because of JoLayne’s expert veterinary treatment of Clara’s Persian Cat, Kenny (named after Kenny Rogers, the country singer) and so when JoLayne begs her for a week’s grace (to give her and Tom Krome time to track down the rednecks who stole her lottery ticket), Clara is happy to play along, to Bernard Squires’ mounting frustration.

Moffit

Oh I nearly forgot to mention Moffit. He is a big, imposing, immaculately dressed Afro-American who is an old, old friend of JoLayne’s, they go back to high school and he’s always had a deep and enduring flame for her. And he happens to work for the US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency.

There’s often a figure like this in Hiaasen’s plots, an old buddy who just happens to have access to government or police computers, a figure who can, therefore, conveniently join the dots and fill in plot holes. Compare with the FBI agent who helps Erin out in Strip Tease.

The quest

Thus it is that by page 100 the narrative has established two damaged people, JoLayne (veteran of six relationships with six loser men and now recovering from a bad beating) and Tom Krome (trying to juggle the demands of his psycho wife, possibly being chased by hitmen set on him by a judge, and now unemployed) decide to track down Bode and Chub (who, being morons, are continuing to use the credit card they stole from JoLayne, and so are leaving a fairly easy trail to follow) and get her lottery ticket back.

And this ‘quest’ is the motor for the next 300 pages of fast-moving, savagely satirical and often very violent narrative. If you are sensitive about racist language, psychology and scenes, this most definitely is not the book for you. The novel takes the reader deep into the damaged psyches of two violent and repellent white supremacists.

Highlights from the rest of the plot

Bode and Chub eat several successive evenings in Hooters restaurant where filthy, slob, face-scratched Chub falls in love with a leggy blonde waitress named Amber who smiles in order to get her tips but finds the pair disgusting.

Once Moffit has learned about JoLayne’s being beaten up and robbed he is very angry and uses computers and cop contacts to identify Chub and visit his apartment. He trashes it, searching thoroughly for the lost lottery ticket, discovering no end of white supremacist posters, guns and porn, before deciding to freak out the racist idiot by writing in three-foot-high red letters on the wall ‘FEAR THE BLACK TIDE’.

When they return to the trashed apartment, this message freaks Bode and Chub out so badly that they pack all their worldly goods and drive south, planning to steal a boat (the ironically named Real Luv) and hide out in the Everglades until they can claim their lottery money and organise their white brotherhood. (In case I haven’t mentioned it, that’s Bode’s plan; to use his winnings to set up a nationwide white Aryan militia.)

Shiner turns up to join them. He’s quit his job at the Grab’N’Go and, in an access of idiotic enthusiasm, has had the initials of the movement tattooed on his bicep. They agree with him to drive south and rendezvous on the coast where they can steal a boat. What the other two don’t expect is that, to please them, Shiner kidnaps Amber from the car park outside Hooters at the end of her shift.

Meanwhile, Tom and JoLayne track down the bad guys by calling her credit card company and finding out where money is being spent. They establish the pair keep eating out at a local Hooters, but spend a long time debating where and how to take the crooks. They have staked out Chub’s apartment so are able to trail them south to a marina where they watch Chub steal a speedboat. Tom and JoLayne  themselves hire a boat for a day.

Thus the main setting of the book shifts, rather surprisingly, from an urban setting to an uninhabited island off the coast of Florida, where Bode and Chub and wimpy fat skinhead Shiner and surprisingly tough waitress Amber rig up a miserable camp. A rainstorm hits. Jolayne and Tom have followed at a distance (not least because, like all Hiaasen heroes, Tom is expert on the water, has binoculars to follow the bad guys’ boat at a distance etc). Now they moor their boat on the other side of the island, and stalk and watch developments among the baddies.

The grotesque highlight

Each Hiaasen novel has a grotesque highlight, a memorably gruesome image which stays with you. In Double Whammy it’s the redneck killer with a dead pitbull’s head attached to his wrist. In Stormy Weather it’s the crooked property salesman crucified to an outsized satellite TV dish by a disgruntled customer. In this novel, it involves the drooling idiot Chub.

Chub, among his countless other vices, snorts glue or aerosols. At various points in the narrative he manages to make himself insensible on whatever sniffable substance he can lay his hands on. On the boat trip out to the island Chub makes himself so blotto on a tube of boat glue he finds, that he passes out with his hand trailing in the water only to wake and find half of it eaten off by a giant crab.

This section on the island drags on a bit, with various arguments and shifts in psychological dynamic between the three white supremacists and their waitress hostage described at what begins to feel like inordinate length.

Tom and JoLayne rescue Amber, Bode dies

Eventually, in a fury of frustration, Chub finally tries to rape Amber and she is fighting him off when there’s a gunshot. Chub is thrown off Amber’s naked body because Tom has just shot half his shoulder away, swiftly followed by a shotgun butt to the head which knocks Bode unconscious.

Tom and JoLayne patch up Chub to stop him bleeding to death, then put Shiner and Amber into the stolen boat, with a map and instructions to go back to civilisation, which they do without mishap.

But, as so often happens (as happened in the very similar situation in Stormy Weather), although they’ve tied up the bad guys, one of them – Bode – manages to get loose and makes a run for it through the mangrove groves to the other end of the island where Tom and JoLayne’s boat is moored.

Except Tom chases him and tackles him in the shallows, they both thrash around kicking and punching. Unfortunately, Bode kicks a stingray which was having a quiet nap on the mud floor and responds by embedding its big sting deep in his thigh. Bode lets go of Tom who staggers upright, himself half-drowned in the epic struggle, then pulls Bode in from the shallows onto the sand. And here he bleeds to death (p.397). Yes, I thought he’d meet a sticky end, Hiaasen’s baddies always do.

The judge, his assistant and the exploding house

This main central plank of the narrative is interspersed with two other plot developments:

Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. gets cold feet. Having had all Tom’s windows shot out he becomes paranoid that Tom will track him down and do something bad to him and/or write about him in his newspaper. So the judge decides that he must not only scare Tom Krome, but kill him! So he gets his legal secretary, Champ Powell, to blow up his house. Champ is a whizz at the law but less so at arson and pours out so much gasoline round Tom’s empty house that he passes out, falling against the cooker as he does so, and blowing the house to kingdom come, killing himself. His body is charred beyond recognition in the ensuing fire. The point is – everyone now thinks the corpse in the house was Tom: everyone thinks Tom is dead, from his managing editor at the newspaper (who didn’t even know he’d quit), to his lawyer, his wife he’s trying to divorce, Katie his lover (who’d admitted everything to the judge) and so on. This sparks a complicated trail of interactions and consequences, while Tom is happily oblivious to it all, far away in the outback trailing the racists.

Sinclair becomes Turtle Boy

Quite a lot earlier in the plot, the editor of the Register had told Sinclair to get his ass up to Grange and find out what Tom Krome was up to and why he wasn’t reporting in to the office (we know it’s because he’s followed the bad guys out to the island but nobody else knows that).

Sinclair does so, and tracks down the house of JoLayne and her neighbours, Demencio and Trisha, but here something weird happens: he has a spiritual awakening.

When JoLayne left with Tom, she asked her neighbours Femencio and Trisha to look after JoLayne’s 46 little turtles and, business with the Weeping Virgin falling a bit slack, Demencio has a brainwave. Why not paint the faces of the 12 apostles onto the shells of 12 of the turtles and claim they appeared overnight? The scam is a runaway success, drawing in thousands of paying believers to the aquarium the pair set up specially for the ‘Holy Turtles’.

Now when Sinclair, poking around to find Tom Krome, is introduced to Demencio and Trisha, when they give him one of the lickle baby turtles to hold, Sinclar has a profound spiritual experience, is converted on the spot. He takes to wearing a white gown and immersing himself in the lined trench Demencio builds for the apostle turtles and letting them crawl all over him. He forgets about his job, he forgets about Tom Krome, he experiences otherworldly bliss and speaks in tongues.

Soon rumour gets round of the freak Demencio nicknames ‘Turtle Boy’, and Sinclair finds himself becoming a major religious attraction in his own right.

There’s quite a lot more plot complexity and detail, because one of the central aspects of the genre of farce is that it has a preposterously convoluted plot.

The bad judge is arrested

By the time Tom and JoLayne return safely to civilisation the threat against him has been lifted. The police have by this stage realised the corpse in Tom’s house was not him but the judge’s legal assistant, and the judge’s wife, Katie, has told the police all about the judge’s arsonical felonies, so that the judge has forgotten about Tom and is packing to escape to the Bahamas. Only to walk out his front door and be arrested by the FBI (p.430). So that storyline, which had taken up a lot of space and complexity, is happily resolved.

Thoughts and reflections

1. White supremacy and race anxiety

Religion is the most obvious and flagrant subject of the satire, what with Demencio’s weeping Madonna and the apostle turtle scams (not to mention Shiner’s born-again mother who I haven’t mentioned so far but insists she can see the face of Jesus printed on the local highway and eventually goes into a kind of religious partnership with Turtle Boy.

But the religious satire is overshadowed by the novel’s larger, more serious theme, which is race, or race relations in America. It is the central theme in Bode and Chub’s lives that they plan to set up a militia named The White Rebel Brotherhood dedicated to the salvation of the white race, against the great tide of blacks, Hispanics, gays and lesbians and liberals and Jews who they see as taking over their country. Their paranoia is satirised in Bode’s incoherent notion that a vast UN or NATO force is waiting on the Bahamas and, at any moment, will invade mainland America and suppress the white race in the name of the international conspiracy of thingummy, something – whenever he gets to this point, in his explanations to Chub or Shiner, Bode gets confused and angry, realising his paranoid delusions don’t actually make sense (pp.351).

The pair’s stupidity is satirised by the way Bode doesn’t realise the White Rebel Brotherhood is the name of a popular rap band. When he learns this it infuriates him, so that Bode changes the name of his little gang to the White Clarion Aryans, who:

‘We believe in the purity and supremacy of the Euro-Caucasian people.’ (p.299)

So far, so dumb, so satirical and so fairly funny. But it isn’t funny when they beat the crap out of JoLayne and grab her breasts and punch her in the groin calling her the n word. A ‘bad’ word here or there is piss in the wind compared to the force of their deep, raging, unrelenting, racist bigotry.

Hiaasen goes some way to investigating the roots of the problem, with periodic explanations that the roots of their hatred lie in the endless frustrations of lazy, stupid, badly educated, dropout, unemployed, lowlife, small-time criminals.

But towards the end of the book there’s a powerful scene where JoLayne cradles the badly wounded Chub in her lap, tending to the wound Tom has just shot in his shoulder (to stop him raping Amber) because she can’t bear to see anything die. JoLayne asks him directly the reason for his unrelenting rage. But all she gets back is cuss words (p.391). Nothing can be explained. These people are too damaged to change and too mentally limited to reflect on their own lives and beliefs.

Same when Bode is dying. JoLayne pitifully asks him:

‘Please. I’m trying to understand the nature of your hatefulness…What did I ever do to you?’ She demanded. ‘What did any black person ever do to you?’ (p.398)

To which Bode can only reply with a thin list of petty offences, none of which get at the real psychological root of such monstrous anger and hate.

On a different plane, the issue of race recurs in the ‘mixed race’ relationship between white Tom and black JoLayne. This mainly takes the shape of her teasing him about his white liberal guilt (p.346) and his honky ass. There’s the moment in the car driving south when she takes the mickey out of the way he only likes ‘white-boy rock’, triggering a spluttering defence on his part, which makes her crack up with laughter (p.244).

This is meant to be fairly light-hearted joshing but to me, at any rate, indicated yet another way in which racial differences seem to be so difficult to normalise. All I mean is that JoLayne and Tom are as liberal individuals as it is possible to imagine, and yet even for them, the difference in skin or race or ethnicity or whatever you want to call it, still creates nervousness and imbalances of power. Can it ever be completely neutral, a relationship between a black person and a white person, completely without an awareness of race? Not if this novel is to be believed.

Anyway, back to Bode and Chub and their pathetic white supremacy, Hiaasen gives it a thorough and extended hammering, but satire doesn’t change anything in the real world. Hiaasen was mocking white supremacy and ignorant bigotry back in 1997 yet Donald Trump came to power on the back of a huge sea of it 20 years later, and his presidency climaxed in the amazing scenes of the Proud Boys storming the Capitol and waving the Confederate flag.

The problem doesn’t seem to have gotten any better in the 24-odd years since 1997, does it? Writing savagely satirical novels isn’t enough. Nowhere near.

2. America, criminal state

Last time I went to New York I hated it. I watched American TV, listened to American radio, saw American hoardings, browsed in American shops, and felt suffocated by it, by the unrelenting commercialisation of everything. There seems to be little or no natural interaction between human beings behaving innocently, politely and candidly. Absolutely everything is monetised, is a deal, every service in a shop or hotel or taxi requires a tip. Money is front of everyone’s mind.

And that’s what comes over in Hiaasen’s books. There’s no character that doesn’t have an angle. They are all after something, and they all spend all their time calculating the odds, the profits and losses, of every deal and every venture. Demencio’s religious frauds are obvious butts for satire, but there isn’t much essential difference between that and the various crooked lawsuits we learn Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. has been involved in. Everyone is faking and lying for money.

Hiaasen gives a particularly detailed explanation of how the judge swings one last crooked judgement before he realises he has to flee the Feds. He finds in favour of a well-known insurance fraudster, 70-year-old Emil LaGort who makes a living out of tripping or falling at supermarkets then suing them for negligence (p.374). Generally, LaGort’s claims are thrown out or he settles for small fees, but the judge rings up LaGort’s attorney and advises him to go hard on the next case. The lawyer is puzzled. The judge explains that, if the lawyer sues LaGort’s latest corporate target for $500,000, he (the judge) will find in his favour – on the understanding that LaGort’s attorney will then give him half that amount. Why? To pay for his hurried flight to the Bahamas.

In other words: the American legal system is not just a bit crooked, it is one enormous scam, from top to bottom, a vast system of interlocking scams and deals at every level, greased by money and bribery.

These aren’t generalised slurs. Hiaasen gives detailed descriptions of hos America’s countless scams and cons work in practice. He explains in great detail the mafia scheme for creaming money off failed building projects, described above. The mafia makes money by commissioning large-scale property developments which are then left deliberately incomplete and declared write-offs, so the mob can launder money through them. The result is to leave Florida covered with abandoned works, whose sole material impact is to devastate the landscape. And this is happening all the time, has been going on for decades.

Hiaasen’s America is all like that, at every level. You can visualise a hierarchy, like a medieval diagram of the ‘estates’, with scumbags like Bode and Chub at the bottom, organised criminals like The Icepick and his fixer Bernard Squires at a higher level, doing deals with bribeable cops, supervised by crooked judges like Battenkill, and then the crooked local politicians Hiaasen has lambasted in other novels sitting at the top, easy to buy and influence with big dollar campaign contributions, the whole thing covered by a TV and print media which are themselves only interesting in keeping the gravy train of corruption and payola spinning forwards in order to bring in those advertising dollars. Money money money. An unending panorama of greed and corruption in every direction.

And then, in a stroke of genius, you give all these crooks and retards and mobsters and hitmen high-powered guns and automatic weapons and let them loose on each other.

Everyone who lived in Dade County knew the sound of a semiautomatic.’ (p.311)

It’s a modern vision of the Inferno. It is contemporary America. In the week since I finished reading the book I think there have been three mass shootings in America, one just yesterday in Hiaasen’s own Miami. What a great country.

3. Americans have a word for it

As part of their can-do, get a move on, hurry hurry culture, Americans just seem to have snappy nouns and catchy phrases to describe things and actions that the English bumble over. A few examples being:

  • to cinch = verb, when you’re wearing a hat with a loop of string under the chin and a toggle which you can move up the two bits of string to tighten them up, you ‘cinch’ it tight; women cinch a scrunchie on their hair
  • a domelight = the overhead light in a car (p.249)
  • to fishtail = verb, to have the rear end of a car slide from side to side. ‘Recklessly he gunned the truck across Highway One and fishtailed into the northbound lane.’ (p.265)
  • a hummer = a blowjob (p.325)
  • a ride-along = someone who comes along for a ride in a car (p.400)
  • walk-ons = when you run a boat hire company in a marina and you get customers who haven’t booked ahead but just walk up and ask if they can hire

Credit

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1997. All references are to the 1998 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Double Whammy by Carl Hiaasen (1987)

Decker said, ‘May I assume we won’t be alerting the authorities?’
‘You learn fast,’ Skink said.
(Double Whammy, page 115)

Carl Hiaasen, born in Florida in 1953, is one of America’s premiere writers of comedy thrillers, and by  the the rather bland word ‘comedy’ what we’re referring to is savage, bitterly satirical and often very violent farce.

Tourist Season

Hiaasen started out as a journalist and by the mid-1980s was writing a regular column for the Miami Herald. By then he had co-written a couple of novels with a fellow journalist, before launching out on his own with his first solo novel, Tourist Season, a violently satirical portrait of a half-assed gang of would-be eco-terrorists who mount a doomed attempt to try and scare away Florida’s never-ending flood of incoming retirees and tourists (by kidnapping random middle-aged tourists and feeding them to a tame crocodile) in a forlorn attempt to save Florida’s last surviving areas of wilderness.

Everyone in the book comes in for satirical blasting – the journalists on the fictional paper covering the events and whose star columnist turns out to be the wild-eyed leader of the revolutionaries; the disgruntled black, Hispanic and Native Indian losers he recruits to the cause; the redneck white cops and the one, good, Hispanic cop who they patronise; the corrupt and cowardly Chamber of Commerce; along with excoriating satire of the fake razzamatazz of city parades and the hypocritical lechery of beauty pageants – no topic is too sacred to be roasted, no profession goes unmocked (‘Decker didn’t see much  difference between the mob and an insurance company’), no situation is left unmined for brutal and macabre situations, and Florida, Hiaasen’s home state, comes in for unremitting, blistering criticism:

Every pillhead fugitive felon in America winds up in Florida eventually. The Human Sludge Factor – it all drips to the South. (p.202)

Along with repeated caricatures of the white racist rednecks who overflow the state and are also referred to as ‘crackers’:

To a man they were rural Southerners, with names like Jerry and Larry, Chet and Greg, Jeb and Jimmy. When they talked it was bubba-this and brother-that, between spits of chaw. (p.165)

Double Whammy

I thought Tourist Season was great, but Double Whammy is even better. The central subject matter is, improbably enough, the burgeoning sport of largemouth bass fishing. Hiaasen gives us plenty of well-researched background into the rise of national competitions to catch largemouth bass, details about fishing rods and baits and boats. (The ‘double whammy’ of the book’s title is a kind of bait or lure, ‘the hottest lure on the pro bass circuit,’ p.23.)

The point of all this is that there’s big money at stake, and the fishing competition at the centre of the story ties into bitter rivalries, fierce fights over ratings and TV sponsorship, competition for national sales of fishing products, with the result that people are cheating, really cheating, cheating bad enough to make it worth while to murder anyone who finds out.

Enter R.J. Decker, one-time fashion photographer, who switched to newspaper photography – less money but easier work – until one day found himself photographing the rotted corpse of a women journalist he’d worked alongside in the newsroom who’d been abducted, raped and murdered, and realising he couldn’t do it any more (p.44).

His wife, Catherine, divorced him and, two weeks later married a well-off timeshare-salesman-turned-chiropractor. On the day of their wedding Decker caught a black guy stealing the expensive cameras from his car boot, gave chase, tackled the guy and beat him to a pulp (p.42).

Which was a mistake, as the thief turned out to be the nephew of powerful people, who got Decker arrested and sent to Apalachee prison for 10 months for assault, his newspaper sacked him, and so there he was ten months later, an unemployed, divorced ex-con. No wonder his ex-wife Catherine’s nickname for him is ‘Rage’ (p.97). At a loss for anything better to do, Decker sets himself up as a private detective, paid to trail adulterous husbands or employees faking ill health to claim the insurance, and take incriminating photos to be used against them in court.

R.J. Decker is the ‘hero’ of the book and the story kicks off as he is hired by largemouth bass fishing fanatic Dennis Gault to investigate corruption on the largemouth bass fishing circuit. At first Decker thinks it’s a joke (as might the reader) so Gault is used as the main mouthpiece to explain the rise of largemouth bass fishing, the spread of state and national competitions, and the significant sums to be won in the endless series of competitions held across the USA (hundreds of thousands of dollars prize money) plus all the sponsorship, TV advertising and so on which comes with it.

We learn that one of the big names in the sport is Dickie Lockhart, who hosts his own carefully doctored TV show about catching big fish, and rakes in big money from sponsorship and ads.

The actual narrative starts with a run-of-the-mill fisherman named Robert Clinch, getting up in the middle of the night, driving to a fishing lake, launching his dinghy and poking about in the depths. We never find out why, for he never returns to his nagging wife and, a few days later, his corpse is dragged out of the lake. When Gault calls in Decker it is to explain that he (Gault) had hired Clinch to look into fishing skullduggery, and that someone had obviously bumped him off. Gault wants Decker to investigate Clinch’s murder.

From that moment we are on a rollercoaster ride of outrageous plot developments, grotesque caricatures, off-the-scale cynicism and corruption, all retailed in short snappy chapters which each move the plot along with brisk efficiency, all retailed in slick, über-articulate prose. We meet:

Characters

Ott Pickney A feeble old acquaintance of Decker’s from his newspaper days, who is eking out his time on the local newspaper of the remote, rural Harney County where Clinch was bumped off. Decker encounters him Ott when he starts investigating Clinch’s death, which prompts Pickney to do a bit of poking around himself, which is unfortunate. He has barely discovered that Clinch’s boat was tampered with to make his death look like an accident before he himself is bumped off by local toughs who are clearly behind Clinch’s murder.

The world at large learns that Pickney has gone missing from the characteristically bizarro fact that Pickney is not only a poorly-paid hack for a remote rural newspaper, but doubles as ‘Davey Dillo’, the mascot for the local Harney High School football team, the Armadillos. People know something’s wrong when he doesn’t turn up for that night’s football game to perform his clumsy stunts dressed as an armadillo on a skateboard (!).

Elaine ‘Lanie’ Gault Ex-model, terrific figure, Lanie is sister of Dennis Gault and sent by him to spy on Decker. Decker encounters her at the large funeral for Clinch, where he learns she was (rather improbably) the dead man’s mistress, and she crops up regularly after that, generally scantily clad, fragrant and very seductive. Turns out she and Decker met some years earlier, when she was a model on a fashion shoot with Decker. In fact it later turns out it was at her suggestion that Dennis hired R.J. in the first place.

Dickie Lockhart is the desperate fraud who fronts the smash-hit TV show, Fast Fish, all about largemouth bass fishing, but only maintains the show and his reputation at competitions by having paid associates pre-capture large fish and secure them in places they’ll be easy for him to uncage and claim as his own.

The Reverend Charles Weeb is president, general manager and spiritual commander of the Outdoor Christian Network (p.52) and front man for its hit show, Jesus In Your Living Room (p.194). He is everything you’d expect in an American TV evangelist, i.e. he’s a foul-mouthed, money-mad hypocrite who preaches to the faithful during the day and has sex with multiple hookers by night, something caught in the following sentences which are typical of the way Hiaasen casually states the most breath-taking hypocrisies and immoralities.

Weeb was wide awake now. He paid off the hookers and sat down to write his Sunday sermon. (p.198)

We later find out that Weeb is also, in a move clearly designed to make him as cynical a character as possible, Jewish! (p.193). It is typical of the novel’s hilariously foul-mouthed profanity, that Weeb thinks of Lockhart, his premiere TV star, as ‘a shiftless pellet-brained cocksucker’ (p.257).

Weeb also performs ‘miracle cures’ and there is a rich comic sub-plot in which his fixer, Deacon Johnson, has to go out and find children, preferably blonde to appeal to his redneck audience, who can be made to look halt or lame and then undergo a ‘miracle’ transformation i.e. be paid to pretend to be halt or lame then stand up and walk on cue.

R.J’s ex-wife is Catherine, beautiful and soulful and still half in love with him, as is demonstrated by the number of times she not only kisses but they have full-blown sex, despite the fact that she is married to her second husband, creepy but successful chiropractor, James. At the climax of the novel Decker saves her life, which often helps to rejuvenate a relationship.

Then there’s the retarded red-neck brothers Culver and Ozzie Rundell who run a bait shop and are involved in some of the early murders. Ozzie is a hilarious portrait of a mumbling, drooling moron with the comic habit of answering the questions he’s asked out of order. Ozzie was:

one of the most witless and jumble-headed crackers that Jim Tile had ever met. (p.251)

Slowly the reader realises that it is Gault, who ostensibly hired Decker to find who murdered Clinch, who is himself behind the murder, using his hired killer, Thomas Curl, a low-grade thug who Gault has hired to look after his interests and investments and bump off anyone who threatens them. When Thomas and his brother Lemus trail Skink and Decker into the backwoods and start shooting at them, Skink hides, doubles back and shoots Lemus neatly through the forehead – which doesn’t improve his brother, Thomas’s, attitude one little bit.

But the most important character in the book, and Hiaasen’s greatest fictional creation, is Skink, a huge dirty, demented environmentalist-cum-hobo, who wears dayglo jackets and a flower-patterned plastic shower cap, who lives in a shack way out in the boondocks and eats roadkill scraped off the state’s blacktop roads (p.32).

In chapter 9 we learn that Skink was once Clinton Tyree, 6 foot 6 ex-college football star and Vietnam vet, who successfully ran to become Florida state governor but wasn’t prepared for the rampant corruption and sleaze involved. When he refused kickbacks to allow commercial developments to go ahead, and in fact tape recorded the incriminating conversations and set the police onto the corrupt corporations, the powers that really run Florida – big business, banks, finance houses, property developers, holiday companies – decided Tyree had to go.

They suborned all the other state officials so that Tyree lost every important vote in the state senate. Then when the corrupt property developers came to trial they were all let off and, as fate would have it, on the very same day, an important wildlife preserve (the ‘Sparrowbeach Wildlife Preserve’, p.119) was sold off to more developers. (A lot later on we learn that Catherine’s salesman husband was involved in selling timeshares at the destroyed wildlife preserve, p.227.)

Depressed and disillusioned by this double blow (a double whammy), Governor Tyree gave up. He had his limousine drive him to a Greyhound bus terminal in Orlando, got on a bus to Tallahassee, but never arrived. Somewhere en route, at a gas stop, he slipped off the bus and was never seen again. It now turns out that he chose the little parish of Harney to hide out in because it is, politically and culturally, the most backwards county in all Florida (p.121), in fact it is:

the most backward-thinking and racist county in the state. (p.241)

Thus the backstory of ‘Skink’, the man Ott Pinkney introduces Decker to (before the former’s unfortunate demise). Pinkney drives Decker out to Skink’s remote shack and from that point onwards the two come to form a very unlikely double act as they delve deeper into the murky waters of Florida’s crooked largemouth bass world. We come to like the way Skink refers to Decker as ‘Miami’ throughout the novel.

Except it isn’t a duo, it’s a trio. Skink has a trusty assistant or compadre, Jim Tile, a black state trooper. Hiaasen goes out of his way to emphasise the entrenched racism of the Florida authorities, and pauses the narrative on a number of occasions to give ample accounts of the racist attitudes and professional obstacles placed in the way of Jim Tile, who is one of the few black troopers working in Florida’s highway patrol. When Tile announced his ambition to one day be in charge of Florida highway patrol, the white authorities promptly exiled him to the most remote dirt-bucket country in the state, Harney County in order to quash his ambition (chapter 11).

It was here, back when Skink was running for governor, that Tile was assigned the job of protecting the then-unelected gubernatorial candidate, Clinton Tyree, as he made a swing through Harney county on the campaign trail. Over the course of the day they spent together Tyree came to appreciate Tile’s honesty and steadiness and, when he unexpectedly won the governorship, he ordered Tile assigned to his personal detail in Tallahassee (which is the state capital of Florida).

So they got to know and trust each other more. When Tyree walked away from the corruption a few years later, Tile was immediately sent by the anti-black authorities back to Harney County, where Skink had, as it happened, decided to hole up, the pair remained in touch, and Jim emerges as a key figure in the novel.

Al García About half-way through the novel (page 206) we are surprised at the arrival of Al García as the detective sent up from Miami to investigate the murders in Harney County. Surprised, because García was a fairly central character in the predecessor novel, Tourist Season. Towards the end of that book García had been shot and badly wounded in the shoulder by the feverish screw-up of a would-be terrorist, Jésus Bernal, just before the novel’s ‘hero’, Brian Keyes, himself shoots Bernal dead. In this novel, there is no reference to any of those events, although there are references to the fact that Al’s shoulder still hurts and he needs painkillers (p.212).

Hiaasen’s prose

It’s a well-established principle that thrillers, especially American thrillers, foreground (generally male) characters who are super-competent, who can drive any vehicle, fly any plane, handle any gun, know how to fight, know how to work the system, know to schmooze journalists or cops or whoever necessary, are men of the world in the fullest sense. (It is revealing that Hiaasen, like William Gibson, is aware that the king of this trope is James Bond and so makes an explicit reference to Bond on page 126, where Lanie is watching an old 007 movie and tells Decker she thinks Connery was the best Bond.)

But in Hiaasen it’s the third-person narrator himself who is astonishingly knowledgeable and confident. To open up a Hiaasen novel is to be immediately in the company of a breezily confident dude who knows all the names for all the angles, all the lingo for all the kit, all the slang for every scam and racket in town and reels off highly informed factual sentences with wonderful brio and verve. Here’s TV host Dickie up in New Orleans for an out-of-state largemouth bass tournament.

On the night of January 15, Dickie Lockhart got dog-sucking drunk on Bourbon Street and was booted out of a topless joint for tossing rubber nightcrawlers on the dancers. (p.148)

There’s at least two levels of pleasure in that one sentence. Number one, it makes the (probably male) reader feel as if they also live in a world which is this rangy, open and confident, New Orleans, jazz bars, strip joints, wow! In reality, despite having knocked about a bit, I don’t think I have ever actually been to a ‘topless joint’ and never will. But for half a page I felt like I was at one.

The second level is the breezy confidence of the prose, which itself can probably be broken down into two levels. First, the grammatical clarity of the sentence. Hiaasen wasn’t an experienced journalist for nothing. Instead of showing off its oblique and angled surfaces like a William Gibson sentence, Hiaasen’s periods get on and tell you what happened, in no-nonsense, no stuffiness, unpretentious, rangy prose. When you come to visualise it, you realise an entire scene is captured in just that one sentence.

Secondly, the narrator shows boundless confidence with terminology, whether it’s street slang or specialised terms. Thus I think I’ve heard lots of synonyms for ‘getting drunk’ but never ‘dog-sucking drunk’ before. Always a pleasure to encounter a new word or phrase, specially if it’s a comically slangy one. And I had to look up ‘nightcrawlers’ to discover that they are, in line with the novel’s fishing theme, worms used as bait.

So it’s not Faulkner or Joyce, but sentence by sentence, Hiaasen gives a lot of pleasure just from his use of prose, its vim and energy, its confidence and its competence.

And this is before you get to any actual plot. The sentence quoted above marks the opening of chapter 12 which goes on to describe the ‘dog-sucking’ drunk Dickie getting thrown out the strip join and staggering over to the hotel where he knows his boss, the Reverend Charles Weeb, is staying, in order to confront him with the fact that he (Dickie) knows that he (Weeb) has been talking to Ed Spurling, another famous fisherman, with a view to sacking Dickie and replacing him with Ed as front man on the TV show Fish Fever.

It helps his case that Dickie discovers the Reverend Weeb in bed with two hookers, one wearing only thigh-length waders, the other riding Weeb’s manhood wearing ‘a Saints jersey, number 12’. Dickie threatens to blackmail Weeb. Weeb has to concede defeat. The reader has experienced a hilariously extreme satire on the nexus of Florida religion, TV business and the sex trade. Snappy stuff, designed to amuse, and it does amuse and entertain, and shock and amaze, very successfully.

Command of language

So many of the sentences stand out for their confidence. Rather than belabour the point they say what they want to say directly, with the minimum of fuss, but often with startling use of language.

  • Already one or two bass boats were out on the water; Decker could hear the big engines chewing up the darkness. (p.101)
  • A speeding motorist could see Skink a mile away. He looked like a neon yeti. (p.36)
  • It was only when he got to his feet that Decker saw what a diesel he truly was. (p.35)

With occasional bursts of real lyricism:

The Everglades night was glorious and immense, the sweep of the sky unlike anything he’d seen anywhere in the South; here the galaxy seemed to spill straight into the shimmering swamp. (p.383)

In addition to Hiaasen’s wonderfully casual fluency are the scores of new (to me) words, terms and phrases he lards the text with:

  • ‘a hundred large’ = hundred thousand dollars (p.97)
  • ‘hulking out’ = working out (p.96)
  • ‘the goldbrick fireman’, where ‘goldbrick’ = super-fit (p.97)
  • ‘it’s going gangbusters’ = the business is thriving (p.99)
  • ‘sportfucking’ = sleeping around (p.322)
  • ‘a through-and-through’ = a bullet wound where the bullet goes direct through soft muscle; Culver Rundell shoots Jim Tile through the thigh, before Tile disarms him, smashes his jaw and systematically breaks all his fingers (p.381)

And mystery words: there are loads of sentences which casually include a word I’ve never read before:

  • ‘I figure they’re poaching gators or jacklighting a deer that came down to drink.’ (p.104) ‘jacklighting’?
  • ‘What kind of work?’ Decker asked. ‘Scut work,’ Skink said. (p.107) ‘Scut work?’
  • ‘Only thing I could figure is that he’d gone out Saturday night and tied one on.’ (p.134)

Occasionally this articulacy crystallises in memorable apothegms:

  • [García] hated trailer parks; trailer parks were the reason God invented tornadoes. (p.210)
  • Guns make people say the darnedest things. (p.404)

The second sentence would make a cracking TV show, a redneck version of ‘You’ve Been Framed’.

Omni-competence

The narrator has that thriller writer’s dazzling super-knowledge about every material aspect of American life, about its reams of products and brands. Thus every item of clothing that every character wears is described, as is the exact make of every car, boat, piece of fishing tackle, everything, is nailed and named:

Dennis Gault was holding a stack of VCR cassettes when he answered the door. He was wearing salmon shorts and a loose mesh top that looked like it would have made an excellent mullet seine. (p.86)

What is a loose mesh top? Is it like a string vest? What is a mullet seine? Is it a type of net?

  • Lanie was dressed in a red timber jacket, skintight Gore-Tex dungarees, and black riding boots. (p.390)
  • He put on his favourite desert-tan leisure suit, buffed his cream-colour shoes, and trimmed his nose hairs. (p.392)
  • [Weeb] wore a powder-blue pullover, white parachute pants, and a pair of black Nike running shoes. (p.304)

‘Timber jacket’, ‘leisure suit’, ‘parachute pants’? I don’t know what any of these are. And the author knows about lots of other stuff, about all aspects of everything. Here’s Skink explaining some background to the fishing:

‘Some of the guys fish the slough when the water’s up,’ Skink cut in. ‘You need a johnboat, and no outboard. Ten minutes from the highway and you’re into heavy bass cover.’ (p.103)

All the characters seem to be impressively knowledgeable about motorboats, possibly true of Florida as a whole, with its watery sports environment:

The boat was an eighteen-foot Aquasport with a two-hundred-horse Evinrude outboard; smooth trim, dry ride, very fast. (p.248)

Everyone is articulate, everything has a name and everyone knows the names of everything. There’s very little doubt or indeterminacy. I’ve just read Samuel Beckett’s complete works and his prose, in particular, is about the impossibility of knowing anything and, for that reason, of ever managing to properly express anything.

Hiaasen’s brazen American confidence is at the extreme opposite end of the psychological and literary spectrum. In Hiaasen’s world everything, absolutely everything, can be known and named and understood.

Decker nodded. ‘Sounds like a Ruger Mini-14’. Very popular with the Porsche-and-powder set in Miami, but not the sort of bang-bang you expected upstate. (p.113)

‘Porsche-and-powder set’. ‘Bang-bang’.

Another running thread is the way everyone eats out and the names of each restaurant or chain and the dishes ordered are specified. I never eat out. I can’t afford it. All the characters in all of Hiaasen’s novels eat out all the time.

  • They sat in a corner table at Middendorf’s
  • They went to the Acme for raw oysters and beer. (p.188)
  • Just what I need is that asshole jetting up for brunch at Brennan’s, thought Decker. (p.199)
  • They went to a Denny’s on Biscayne Boulevard. (p.214)
  • ‘We hit Mister Donut on the way in,’ Decker said (p.347).

Same goes for human behaviour, it is supremely knowable and therefore predicatable. Routinely, characters expect the other person to say or do this or that, and that is exactly what they then do. This notion, that people are predictable robots with set repertoires is the basis of much humour, as pointed out by Henri Bergson a century ago. A good example comes on page 98 where R.J. is chatting to his ex-wife Catherine, and he can tell she’s about to go into her ‘You’re wasting your life’ routine and, sure enough, she does, much to the reader’s amusement.

Of course the weakness of this approach is that, if everything is already known and named and identified, both the plot and the characters risk realising that they are in a thriller, conforming to thriller stereotypes. It’s interesting how often thrillers themselves raise this issue, presumably hoping to allay the reader’s suspicions, but on the whole serving only to highlight their own secondariness, their ‘already-read’ nature.

Thus when Lanie visits Decker in his motel bedroom in the second half of the novel and bursts into tears, he knows by this stage that she’s a lying actor, knows it’s all an act, but nonetheless finds himself moving to the bed to hold her and comfort her, painfully aware how clichéd the whole scene is.

Of course then the tears came, and the next thing Decker knew he had moved to the bed and put his arms around Lanie and told her to knock off the crying. Please. In his mind’s eye he could see himself in this cheesy scene out of a cheap detective movie; acting like the gruff cad, awkwardly consoling the weepy long-legged knockout. (p.129)

‘Knockout’, the thing that’s often missed about tough-guy, hard-boiled prose is that it’s often funny, it’s knowingness is a fundamentally comic attitude. One way to avoid accusations of over-familiarity and stereotype, to decisively step out of the deep shadows of Fleming or Chandler, is to outgross and outgrotesque all your predecessors, and this Hiaasen very successfully manages to do.

Evermore grotesque

There’s a lot more plot, a plot which gets steadily more convoluted and farcical, but it is a savage farce in which people get beaten up, tied up, shot and gruesomely murdered. For example: Lanie, sent to seduce and spy on Decker, gets kidnapped, stripped naked and tied up in hundreds of yards of tough fishing twine; slick Dickie Lockhart gets hit in the head and drowned; and Dennis Gault is, eventually, revealed as the bad guy behind almost all the murders, and meets a sticky end when he catches a monster bass which pulls him by his rod and line backwards over the stern of a shiny new fishing boat where is instantly shredded by its state-of-the-art high speed propeller.

Probably the funniest element of the novel (or the sickest, depending on how squeamish you are) is that the hired hitman of the book, the thug Thomas Curl, is trying to break into Decker’s trailer when he is attacked by one of the chavvy neighbours’ pitbull terriers. The beast jumps up and bites him in the arm and, although Curl then stabs and kills it with a screwdriver, the pitbull refuses to let go.

In fact so tightly are the animal’s jaws clamped on his forearm that even after Curl’s sawed the head clean off, the dog won’t let go. And so killer Curl goes through the last third of the novel with a dead pitbull head clamped to his arm. Inevitably, the thing begins to rot and fester and the infection gets into Curl’s bloodstream, making him increasingly delirious and feverish.

Thus when he kidnaps the lovely Catherine, Decker’s ex-wife, she is terrified to realise that Curl is talking to the dead dog’s head as if it were a friendly pet. It’s a very funny moment when Catherine realises that, to stay on his good side, she’d better play along too, and so she starts to make doggy barking noises behind her hand, which Curl, in his hallucinatory state, takes to be the yapping of his nice doggy which he has, by this time, named Lucas.

The hallucinating killer with a rotting dog’s head clamped to his arm is one of Hiaasen’s most vivid and fabulously grotesque creations.

The climax

Tourist Season led up to a ghastly climax during the half-time entertainment of the big local football game, when the would-be environmental terrorists, led by renegade journalist Skip Wiley, kidnap the local beauty queen in front of not only a live audience but a stunned national TV audience.

Something similar happens here, for the ever-accelerating plot leading up to a climax set in the biggest richest largemouth bass fishing competition in the country, set up by the Reverend Weeb in order to promote the fishing ‘lakes’ created next to the building development he’s invested all his money in. For, deep down, the ultimate motor of the plot is not the fishing competitions as such, but Hiaasen’s deepest and most consistent enemy, illegal, corrupt and environmentally devastating property developments.

Weeb has invested a lot of time and money setting up this competition, offering the biggest prize money and invited all America’s top fishermen to ensure maximum coverage for his new housing development and scenic fishing lakes, and which he intends to preface with an extra special edition of his TV evangelism show, Jesus in Your Living Room.

As you might imagine, the religious show and the televised fishing competition which follow it turn into a chaotic fiasco with half a dozen plotlines all converging to create maximum havoc, not least the fact that the entire development that Weeb has invested millions in turns out to have been built on an old landfill site so that, in scooping out the supposed ‘lakes’ the developers created vast pools of toxic liquid not that dissimilar from battery acid, in which no fish – let alone the thousands of largemouth bass the Reverend has had carefully and expensively bussed in to stock the water and provide telegenic catches – can survive for even a day.

Another comic aspect of the climactic scenes is the way the black man Jim Tile and the Hispanic Al García enter this super-fishing competition a) thus outraging all the other whiter-than-white contestants, and the Reverend Weeb, but also b) taking the mickey out of their racist opponents by speaking each other’s idiolect, so that Tile speaks bad Spanish and García speaks street jivetalk. It is preposterous, absurd and very funny.

So the fishing competition turns into a catastrophic disaster with not one fish being pulled out of the so-called ‘lakes’ alive, but it is matched for farce by the TV evangelism strand in which the Reverend Weeb was meant to perform a miracle cure of a poor sinner, which leads to his poor assistant scouring the streets and towns near to the lake development to find a tramp or hobo, or preferably a kid from an orphanage who can be paid to play lame or blind or paralysed and then, at the climax of the Revere and Weeb’s prayers and performance, miraculously rise and see and speak. Except that the assistant, running out of time and getting desperate, chooses none other than Skink, sitting alone and derelict looking in a bus shelter and wearing sunglasses, who immediately twigs what is going on, and plays along pretending to be blind, right up till the moment the reverend claims to cure him when, of course, he reveals his true character and delivers a grotesque rant to the live TV audience with, as they say, hilarious consequences.

There’s a huge amount more plot and detail to this riotous book, multiple other plotlines which are laid out and drawn together with brilliant precision and comic timing, and all lead up to this savage, satirical, violent and riotous climax. Double Whammy is a brilliantly shocking, scandalously entertaining and hilarious novel.


Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

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