Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane (1995)

‘It should be an interesting few weeks, old boy.’
(The words of David, Fergal Keane’s tall, elegant, 60-year-old BBC producer, as they arrive at the border of Rwanda, page 42)

Fergal Keane, reporter and moral superstar

Keane is an award-winning BBC foreign correspondent and writer. This is a short 190-page book which recounts the journey undertaken by him, his 3-man BBC TV news crew, with a couple of South African security guys  (Glen and Tony) and two African drivers (Edward and Moses), as they crossed into north Rwanda from Uganda. It follows this team as they drove through the devastated countryside only weeks after it had been pacified by the invading Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and saw for themselves the corpses produced by the Rwandan genocide (April to July 1994). They saw hundreds and then thousands of dead bodies, clogging rivers, littered across the countryside and packed into buildings, houses and churches in villages and towns.

However, although the book contains many descriptions of bodies hacked to pieces, of mothers trying to protect their children who had their skulls cleaved open by machetes, children’s bodies cut clean in two, and so on – a kind of Pompeii of corpses caught in all manner of strange, poignant and horrifying postures as the murderers did their work – the horror is mixed with another element which I couldn’t  help finding irritating at first and then broadly comic, which is Keane’s humourless self-importance.

Keane the sensitive reporter is front and centre of the entire account, which opens not with any African or Rwandan voices, stories, facts or history or events, but with pages and pages of Keane impressing on the reader how he is such a sensitive man that even now, a year after his journey, as he writes his book, he is still haunted by dreams and nightmares of what he saw; how he struggles to put it into words, how he struggles to make sense of the horror of mass killing and so on.

My dreams are the fruit of my journey down the dirt road to Nyarubuye. How do I write this, how do I do justice to what lies at the end of this road? As simply as possible. This is not a moment for fine words. (p.76)

But the fact that he even has to tell us that he is agonising about how to write it, how to describe the scene, and shares with us his heroic decision not to use ‘fine words’, this is all grandstanding, showboating, foregrounding his wonderful scrupulousness as a Man and as a Writer. He may claim not to use ‘fine words’ (although, in fact, he often does) but he certainly uses fine feelings.

He could have just described what he saw and been a simple, factual, objective observer. But Keane is incapable of keeping himself out of the picture and swamps everything with his first-hand impressions, all recounted in a lulling Irish brogue.

This self-promotion extends beyond himself to encompass his BBC news crew (producer, cameraman, soundman) and fixers (the two SA security men), describing them as the best in the world, top of their trade, ace professionals – sensitive (very sensitive), creative, reliable, hard working – a great bunch of guys!

These passages dwelling at length on what a caring, sensitive fellow Keane is, and what a fantastically hard-working but sensitive crew he was privileged to work with – made me smile and occasionally burst out laughing at their self-importance, their lack of self-awareness, their complete inappropriateness in what purports to be a record of one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century.

So Season of Blood can be broken down into three elements:

  1. The syrup-thick self-congratulation and oh-so-sensitive descriptions of how Keane felt, at the time and for months after the journey was over, which start and end the text and feature liberally throughout.
  2. The series of incidents which made up his actual journey across Rwanda: names of the people they met (generally from the RPF, sometimes the UN) who showed them sites of numerous atrocities where the bodies were still piled up in streets and fields, houses and churches, and interviews with (often very badly injured) survivors, and the genocidal Hutu authorities who dismissed it all as exaggeration and the inevitable casualties of war.
  3. Historical background – Keane’s solid reworking of the standard history I’ve read in all the other accounts.

1. A song for the sensitive

On the 1974 album ‘Monty Python Live at Drury Lane’, Neil Innes introduces his song ‘How sweet to be an idiot’ by whispering, ‘And now…a song for the sensitive’, to much laughter from those with a sense of humour. This phrase kept echoing round my head as I read the confessional parts of Keane’s text.

I thought New York journalist Philip Gourevitch had done a good job of showing how sensitive and deep he was in his 1998 book about the Rwandan Genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, but he is blown clean out of the water by BBC journalist-superstar and softly-spoken Irishman, Fergal Keane. Here is the opening paragraph of Keane’s Rwandan Journey, for best effect to be intoned in a mellifluous Irish accent, very quietly and very sensitively:

I do not know what dreams ask of us, what they come to collect. But they have come again and again recently, and I have no answers. I thought that after the bad nights of last summer the dead had abandoned me, had mouldered into memory. But the brothers and sisters, the mothers and fathers and children, all the great wailing families of the night are back, holding fast with their withering hands, demanding my attention. Understand first that I do not want your sympathy. The dreams are part of the baggage on this journey. I understood that from the outset. After all, four years in the South African townships had shown me something of the dark side, and I made the choice to go to Rwanda. Nobody forced or pressurised me. So when I tell you about the nights of dread, understand that they are only part of the big picture, the first step backward into the story of a journey that happened a year ago. (page 1)

Personally, I think it was very considerate of the Rwandan people to stage an epic bloodbath in order to provide Mr Keane with a splendid backdrop against which to display his sensitive soul, his simple but poetic prose, his knowledge of ‘the dark side’ (guffaw) and his fine moral scruples. Just recently I notice the arrival in the language of the phrase ‘humble-bragging’, which means:

the action of making an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement with the actual intention of drawing attention to something of which one is proud.

So when Fergal says he doesn’t want our sympathy, it was hell but he’ll be OK, no, no, he really doesn’t want our sympathy, not at all, really he doesn’t, the dreams, the dreams are sometimes hard to bear, but, shucks, he was just doing his job, no, no sympathy thank you — it’s hard not to burst out laughing at his self-important humble-bragging.

And not just him. He says there were many of ‘us’ who went there, many tip-top international journalists like Fergal. Some claim they don’t have bad dreams, but Fergal knows better. They, all of them, this band of brothers, this close-knit community of sensitive reporters, according to Fergal, they still ‘mourn the dead of Rwanda’. They still suffer at nights from that special feeling. What special feeling? Well:

How can I best describe it? It is a mixture of dread fascination, sorrow for what we learned and lost in the short few weeks of chaos, a mind weariness that feeds itself by replaying the old tapes over and over. We reach for the off switch but in the darkness cannot find it. (p.3)

Portentous and pretentious, humourless self-importance. Note the deliberately ‘poetic’ language. Given the choice between the ordinary functional word and the archaic, poetic equivalent, Fergal always plumps for the latter. He and his crew don’t get up at the start of the day; they ‘rise to start another day’ (p.44). The crooks they meet with in Nairobi are ‘rogues’ (p.48). The rains don’t prompt new growth, they ‘bring forth’ great tangles of vegetation, as if touched by the staff of Moses (p.49). David doesn’t start crying when he thinks about his daughter back home; he is ‘in the thrall of this fatherly emotion’ (p.35). Every page is blessed with a gem of pretentious and high-sounding diction.

And the journey itself is not just any hack’s trip to cover another grim African tragedy: it is a knight of the round table on a quest, it is a pilgrim’s progress, it is the odyssey of a Great Spirit, greater, finer, more sensitive than the humble likes of you and I.

My journey into Rwanda was about following the lines of blood and history; about sleeping with the smell of death, fear and hatred; about exhaustion and loss and tears and in some strange ways even love. For me to make sense of that journey, however, I cannot write in terms of facts alone. So bear with me when the road runs down into the valleys of the heart and mind and soul… (p.3)

What a wanker. And the Rwandans? The genocide? You want to know about them? Hang on, first there’s another fifty pages while we follow the road down into the valleys of Fergal’s heart and mind and soul…

Padding

So Keane comes over, fairly regularly, as a self-important so-and-so. But the emphasis on the personal nature of his text and the amount of time he spends describing his travelling companions may have a more banal cause. For he tells us early on that he only spent a few weeks in Rwanda (p.4) and later on that his brief trip started in early June 1994 (p.123).

This may explain why so much of the text describes his fine feelings, his doughty companions and the details of their itinerary rather than the history or politics of Rwanda. A lot of the preening might simply be padding for a book which barely stretches to 190 pages. In fact it’s only on page 48 of the 190 pages that he and his team cross into Rwanda and the journey proper begins. So the actual travelogue of Rwanda is barely 140 pages long. It’s an often intense but, ultimately, quite thin and superficial account.

Top chaps

Fergal went to Rwanda with a BBC team to make a film for Panorama and what a team he took with him! He is accompanied by one of the BBC’s most respected producers ‘whose bravery in dangerous situations was remarkable’; by a soundman who is also a novelist; by a cameraman who ‘mixed rugged good sense with extraordinary sensitivity’. Goodness! What special people Fergal surrounds himself with! What heroes! What legends!

And it takes one top chap to know another top chap. Thirty seconds on Fergal’s Wikipedia page tells us that Keane attended the Presentation Brothers College in Cork, a private, fee-paying Catholic school which is ranked the number one boys’ secondary school in Ireland. Maybe this is where his overweening sense of superiority comes from, his indestructible confidence in what are, in the end, pretty banal observations written in humble-bragging prose.

Rather snipingly, Fergal points out that most other TV journalists and crews are mercenary hacks who fly wherever the bodies piling up, knock out superficial stories about a situation they barely understand and then, as soon as the fighting stops, move on – the cynical, superficial hacks!

Where television is concerned, African news is generally only big news when it involves lots of dead bodies. The higher the mound, the greater the possibility that the world will, however briefly, send its camera teams and correspondents. Once the story has gone ‘stale’ i.e. there are no new bodies and the refugees are down to a trickle, the circus moves on. (p.7)

TV news is sensationalist and superficial!? This must be why the BBC pays its top correspondents the big bucks, for coming up with wonderful insights like this.

But then Saint Fergal goes out of his way to emphasise that he is not like all those other TV correspondents and his crew are not like all those other horrible mercenary crews. No, his crew includes a sound man who is also a novelist; and a cameraman who ‘mixed rugged good sense with extraordinary sensitivity’; and a producer ‘whose bravery in dangerous situations was remarkable’. And they work for the BBC so they must be the best! And they are fronted by a sensitive soul who still has dreams, all these months later, of the terrible things he saw but no, thank you, no, he doesn’t need your sympathy. Very kind, but he’s man enough to take it.

Admittedly, this band of heroes only flew into Rwanda when the story began to involve lots of bodies – exactly like the other crews he criticises. Admittedly, they only stayed for a few weeks – exactly like those other crews he criticises. Admittedly, his team also moved on once the story had gone stale –exactly like those other crews he criticises. But his crew did it in a specially sensitive and rugged and heroic way, in a noble BBC way, which completely separates them from all the other media riff-raff. This isn’t just any old reporter and his camera crew; this is an M&S reporter and his camera crew.

David the producer is tall, silver haired and works harder than anyone Fergal has ever met! He is steady as a rock, ‘not given to exaggeration or panic’, who arranges for them to meet an RPF minder. Whatever situation they find themselves in David can always fix it, with a few discreet words and a shrewd wink. What a top chap!

David never reveals his feelings because he’s that kind of steady, dignified, old-fashioned type of fellow. Right up until, one day barrelling along in their Land Rover, Fergal shares the Yeats poem, ‘Prayer For My Daughter,’ with him, at which point a quiet tear comes to David’s eye, as he thinks of his dear beloved daughter back home in Blighty (p.35). Poetry! Yeats! A quiet tear! Yes, what a fine and sensitive chaps he is, they all are!

Perhaps more than anything I admired his old-fashioned journalistic honesty. David believed in going to places and finding out what was happening, talking to as many sides as possible, and only then making up his mind. In this he was different from many producers who arrived with their own predetermined ideas of what the story should be and then sought out the voices to support their theories. He wasn’t a glamorous media figure, nor was he political in the sense of fighting internal battles within the BBC. Although it is hard to guess at the true motives of a colleague, I liked to think that David Harrison was moved ultimately by the oldest and most noble journalistic aspiration of all: to seek the truth and report it whatever the consequences. (p.67)

Shucks. Saint Fergal and noble David are travelling with old Africa hands Tony and Glenn. Tony is a short story writer and novelist who went to ‘one of Johannesburg’s top public schools’. He was his college rowing champion. Glenn, by contrast, worked his way up from a tough, deprived and petty criminal background, via a spell in the South Africa Defence Force, on to become ‘one of the best news cameramen in the country’ and ‘the most sensitive cameraman I have ever worked with’ (p.40). The sensitivity and camaraderie ooze out of this book like ectoplasm.

Carlsberg doesn’t make news crews but if they did…

Basically, Saint Fergal is trying to write a novel, except it is a novel full of hilariously portentous and symbolic moments (before they leave Kenya for Rwanda, a fellow journalist gets drunk in a hotel bar in Nairobi and ominously warns Keane that he is heading towards a realm of ‘spiritual damage’, p.43), featuring a cast of noble, high-minded chaps (top public school, best cameraman in the country, champion rower, noble producer etc) and written in a pretentious mash-up of late Victorian diction (‘we rose to begin our journey’ – that’s actually what he writes on page 44) and the Bible (‘The rains had brought forth a great tangle of vegetation’). The prose reads like the stained glass windows in the chapel of his elite Catholic boarding school – simple, over-coloured, larger than life, sentimental and repellently high-minded.

Buried in this short book is some excellent reportage, some vivid encounters and some stomach-churning scenes – but all swamped by a kind of rehashing of a Victorian, boys own adventure novel.

2. Rwandan history

Fergal tells the same outline history I’ve read in David van Reybrouck, Philip Gourevitch and Jason Stearns. Nobody really knows their origins, but eventually Rwandan society came to be split between three ethnic groups, the Hutu from the west (85%), the Tutsi from the north (15%) and smattering of the Twa, descendants of the pygmies who probably lived in the Rwanda-Burundi region first but are now marginalised.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when Europeans first arrived, they discovered a society where the Tutsi formed a cattle-rearing elite, ruled by a Tutsi king, who lorded it over the four-fifths of the population who were Hutu peasant farmers. The stereotype has it that the Tutsi are tall and thin, with thin lips, long noses and lighter skins, while the Hutu are shorter, stockier with more classical ‘Negro’ features – although, like all the other writers on the subject, Fergal emphasises that, after centuries of intermarriage, plenty of the population was impossible to assign to one group or the other.

The German colonisers in the 1890s, then the Belgians who were allotted Rwanda after Germany lost World War One, both these European colonisers sided with the aristocratic Tutsi. In the 1930s the previously fluid demarcation between the ethnic groups was destroyed when the Belgians issued identity cards which required you to specify which racial group you belonged to.

At this point Fergal does what Gourevitch does: he speeds over the history of ethnic tension between the two groups because he is concerned to make the genocide seem unique. In its scale it certainly was, and in the way it was very deliberately planned, managed and organised by Hutu extremists it certainly was, and in its aim at total extermination of the enemy, it was. And yet the insistence of both Gourevitch and Keane on making it sound exceptional is a little undermined by the facts. Because as both writers concede, there had been a long history of inter-communal violence before 1994, which continued well after 1994.

Thus when the Tutsi monarch Mwaami Rudahigwa died in 1959, the Hutus rose in rebellion against Tutsi rule and between ten and one hundred thousand Tutsis were massacred. The rivers were full of bodies. That’s a lot of people. It begins to undermine the claim of the genocide to complete uniqueness.

In neighbouring Burundi the Tutsi held on to power through the 1960s and, to forestall a Hutu revolt, in 1973 the Burundi army murdered nearly a quarter of a million Hutus. A quarter of a million. That’s a lot of people, isn’t it? Once you start reading Rwandan history you realise the genocide may have been unique in conception and ambition, but it is, at the same time, part of a continuum of massacres and pogroms which go back at least as far as independence if not before.

Gourevitch and Keane both come on as if the 1994 genocide was a one-off, uniquely wicked and evil event, and it is its perceived uniqueness which prompts in both writers a great deal of hand-wringing and virtue signalling. Why oh why did they…? What oh what made them…? How could anybody behave like this…? and so on.

But hang on – isn’t massacring 100,000 Tutsis in 1959 also a bit, you know, evil? And what about the murder of nearly a quarter of a million Hutus? Also, pretty violent and pretty evil, too.

Why aren’t there books about those massacres? Does a hundred thousand not register? Is quarter of a million not enough? Is it as simple as the fact that back then, in the 60s and 70s, there was less TV coverage, less satellite technology to flash footage round the worlds, that it was harder to travel to these remote countries, so the massacres didn’t get covered and so… they don’t count?

Keane goes on to explain that by 1990 the kleptocratic crony regime of Rwandan dictator Juvénal Habyarimana was so corrupt that it found it very convenient to use the century-old bogeyman of the Tutsi oppressor to stir up the Hutu masses in order to stay in power, where it could carry on happily creaming off aid money and World Bank loans into its personal Swiss bank accounts.

Keane totally supports the theory the Hutu president Habyarimana’s plane wasn’t shot down, killing all on board, by Tutsi wrong-doers but by extremists within his own Hutu government. Habyarimana’s sudden death allowed Hutu supremacists to seize power and within just one hour of the president’s death to start issuing orders to implement the plan for the total extermination of the entire Tutsi population of Rwanda (maybe 1.5 million people) which senior members of Hutu Power had been carefully working on for years.

I take the point that what sets the 1994 massacres apart was the entirely political nature of the genocide, and the existence of a detailed plan, and the use of all the levers of the state to mobilise people to the killing, and the fact that the stated ambition was total annihilation of the Tutsis…

But I feel uneasy that Keane, like Gourevitch, devotes two hundred pages and a lot of hand-wringing to the killing of 800,000 people, but skims over the murder of 250,000 people or 100,000 people in a sentence – as if their murders don’t matter so much because they weren’t massacred in such an organised way.

Are some campaigns of mass murder more important, more meaningful than others? Are the dead in one mass murder campaign less important than the dead in another one? The short answer appears to be yes.

3. What Fergal saw

Keane and his crew cross the border and are met with polite and intelligent RPF soldiers, part of the well-disciplined force which has driven the Hutu army from the country. David the noble producer had contacted the RPF from Belgium and so an army liaison officer, Lieutenant Frank Ndore, is waiting for them at the first checkpoint inside Rwanda. From here onwards, Frank will be their polite and helpful guide.

Frank takes them to meet Rose Kayitesi who’s switched from being a rebel fighter to setting up a refuge for 50 or so orphaned children aged 6 to 8 in an abandoned hotel (p.68). Some of them tell their stories, like the young girl who describes seeing her entire family hacked to death by the Interahamwe, herself is badly injured but left under a pile of corpses where she remains still till the attackers have left. Their guide, Frank explains why the Interahamwe were so keen to exterminate all children and hid in wait for them or silently listened out for whimpers and crying before moving in for the kill (p.71). Resulting in some children withdrawing, refusing to eat and dying of grief (p.72).

Fergal sees the river clogged with corpses (p.74). Many rivers were clogged with bodies. Lake Victoria became so polluted with corpses that Ugandan fishermen dragged them out and buried them to stop them killing off the fish (p.75).

Frank takes them to the town of Nyarubuye where some 3,000 people were hacked to pieces in and around the parish church (p.76). Lots of human bodies which have been hacked to death from every possible angle, displaying every possible wound.

They meet small groups of refugees on the road, clustering together for safety, each one generally the sole survivor of the massacre of their family, their village, their community.

The offices of the mayor of Rusomo have been converted into a makeshift hospital for survivors with terrible wounds. There is no medicine, no painkillers. The mayor or bourgmestre was Sylvestre Gacumbitsi and many of the poor Tutsis of the town turned to him for help as the atmosphere became tense on the buildup to the genocide. Not only did he turn them away, but a few days later he led Hutu death squads round the homes of Tutsis and directed the mass murder, using the identity cards he had in his filing cabinets in the office. Flora Mukampore only survived, badly cut and bleeding, because she hid under a pile of fresh corpses (p.89).

On the spur of the moment they decide to try and track down this genocidaire and mass murderer Sylvestre Gacumbitsi and so drive east, across the border into nearby Tanzania, and to one of the biggest refugee camps which sprang up as hundreds of thousands of terrified Hutus fled the advancing RPF, Benaco. The camp is a vast mudbath, organised into ‘roads’ between groups of tents made from tarpaulin supplied by the UN and aid agencies. They spend the night and then assiduous questioning does in fact lead them to Sylvestre Gacumbitsi. He is surrounded by young men with machetes who are carrying out his orders as he manages the distribution of rice to refugees from his canton. Keane questions him as hard as possible, putting to him the accusations of eye witness who saw him (Sylvestre Gacumbitsi) directing the killing. But the big man denies it, dismisses it all as Tutsi propaganda, and his surly followers mutter agreement.

In a flash Keane realises the génocidaires have brought their entire social system into the camps, recreated their networks of clientilism and patronage and intimidation. And the international community is going along with it, funding them, feeding them, allowing them to recreate the murderous militias (p.107).

Keane realises the international community which did sweet FA to prevent the genocide has been only too happy to jump into action when confronted with a huge refugee crisis. Setting up camps, flying in vast amounts of food, faces of happy aid workers helping happy refugees, this is what everyone wanted. Keane thinks well-armed Western soldiers could have easily identified leading génocidaires and arrested them. Their failure was a complete moral failure. The international community was ‘giving comfort to butchers’ (p.110).

That same night they drive back over the bridge by the Rusomo Falls into Rwanda. They see soldiers looting refugees. Reading this, it occurs to me that most of the world is like this. Bullies preying on smaller bullies who prey on the absolutely helpless.

Drunk Tanzanian soldiers try to stop them crossing the bridge and then to confiscate their camera, but like their fairy godmother Lieutenant Frank appears, and gets the RPF soldiers his side to pay the drunk Tanzanian soldiery a few hundred dollars and a tricky situation is defused. Really makes me want to go to Africa (p.113).

Lieutenant Frank organises a tour of the abandoned and ransacked presidential palace. (This is reminiscent of Michela Wrong in the abandoned and ransacked palace of Joseph Mobutu or Philip Gourevitch in the abandoned and ransacked palace ditto. It’s a kind of standard element or trope of ‘the overthrow of dictators’ journalism.)

They are staying at the UN offices along with all the other correspondents, journalists and news crews. They do tend to stick together. Keane is in Kigali when half the city was still in government hands and the RPF was shelling and mortaring its way into the government half. At short notice they are invited to visit a Red Cross hospital. To nobody’s surprise a hospital in a war zone is packed with terribly injured soldiers and civilians. He sees a small Tutsi boy whose arm has been cut off. Details like that, snapshots, say more than all Keane’s editorialising.

When they leave to drive back through roadblocks to the rebel side of Kigali, they are hustled into smuggling with them two European missionaries who have escaped from a mission up country because Brother Otto’s arm was wounded and he needed treatment. Nerve-racking moments as they smuggle the two missionaries out. Later, Keane hears their story. To seek out help they left behind a mission full of Tutsi children they had been protecting. The children knew it was coming. They asked to be locked in a room. A week later the militia came and slaughtered all 50 of them. Brother Henri tells Keane all this though tears.

That night they get drunk with their faithful guide Lieutenant Ndore who insists, like all the RPF they’ve met, that it’s not about ethnicity, it’s about power and politics. A political cabal and their clients had made personal fortunes creaming off the nation’s wealth and turning the civil service into a party machine (p.20). They wanted to carry on doing so under the dictatorship and so didn’t want to be forced to accept a multi-party, multi-ethnic constitution which the ‘international community’ was forcing Habyarimana to accept.

Without political power the whole system of patronage and clientelism would collapse. (p.23)

The politics of ethnicity

Throughout the book Keane repeats the same notion, which is that the genocide may have been defined in terms of ethnicity but it was at bottom politically motivated. It took expression in ethnic cleansing but it was about one group, one party, the extreme wing of the president’s MRND party and its extended clients, clinging on to power and consolidating its power for ever.

Keane’s insistence can be interpreted several different ways: one is that he is sticking to a humanistic conviction that ethnicity isn’t the be-all and end-all because this optimistic conviction allows him to hope that ethnicity can be overcome and so that the genuinely multi-ethnic state which the RFP promises can be brought into existence.

But it is possible to devise a kind of reverse interpretation of the same set of facts, which is: what if, in many countries, ethnicity is politics? In the 25 years since Keane wrote this book ethnicity hasn’t disappeared as a defining factor in political cultures around the world, it has grown, particularly in the last decade. All round the world we have seen the rise of nationalist leaders waving their national flag and liable to attack minorities: the BJP demonising Muslims in India; the military junta in Myanmar ethnically cleansing the Rohingya; China brutally clamping down on the Xinjiang Muslims. And anti-immigrant rhetoric becoming widespread across the West.

Keane’s book was written before any of this happened but, at various points, it emphasises that these kinds of divisions between ethnicities are not inevitable but are always stirred up by politicians with essentially political motivations i.e. using ethnic differences in order to stir up their base and remain in power. And in the money.

Back to the journey

Anyway, back in the narrative, it’s time to say goodbye to the helpful, intelligent Lieutenant Ndore and so Fergal gives him the edition of Yeats he’s been carrying round, as a thank you present (p.141).

He writes a half-page note about visiting the Amohoro stadium which the UN forces managed to secure and where they protected thousands of terrified refugees.

And the second half of the same page records a visit to the Milles Collines Hotel, also guarded by a small contingent of UN soldiers, where hundreds of refugees live in terror that the Interahamwe lounging at the roadblocked entrance will one day simply walk in and hack everyone to pieces, the hotel which was to become famous because of the movie, Hotel Rwanda (p.142).

Keane and his crew are assigned a new RPF minder named Ernest to replace Lieutenant Frank, but he is a kid, unreliable and always wants to sleep. He is to guide them on the route south into Burundi. They get into their Land Rovers and drive to the town of Kabuga, which saw heavy fighting. Every building is damaged, bodies, not just of humans. A dead cow is wedged into a doorway (p.145).

Ernest then tells them he knows the route to the border with Burundi and sets them off down a road which gets smaller and more jungley until they pass two wrecked vehicles and realise the road is landmined. As this is sinking in, they see two figures ahead burying something and hurriedly turn round and drive all the way back to Kabuga.

After recovering back in Kabuga, they set off south again, this time by a different route. Hours of nervous tension driving through jungle with one of the crew’s two Land Rovers making bad sounds as if it’s about to break down. They arrive at the village of Zaza, held by the RPF, who are guarding several hundred Hutu prisoners. Keane quotes an African Rights report which estimates 800 people were murdered in the commune of Zaza, and quotes one woman survivor who watched the children being hacked to death and was, again, buried under a pile of bodies, covered in blood and so thought dead by the attackers (p.154).

It is a nerve-racking night, given a few rooms in an abandoned house by the RPF officer, who commands just 15 men to hold a remote village filled with 300 or more Hutu prisoners, while everyone knows the Interahamwe are out there in the jungle.

Next day, 12 June 1994, they finally make it to the Burundi border and are checked through by drunk Tutsi Burundi soldiers. They say goodbye to the two Ugandan drivers, Edward and Moses, who have to turn round and drive the length of the country and back across the northern border, into Uganda, before it gets dark.

They are met by Rizu Hamid, a South African born Asian who’s worked as Fergal’s fixer in South Africa. She is, of course, ‘tough and dedicated’. He is awestruck by her ability to smooth talk even the most difficult, dangerous soldiers at roadblocks (p.167). But then, everyone Fergus works with is an epitome. Rizu has arranged for a young government soldier named Sergeant Patrice to be their minder as they penetrate into the government-held area to meet and interview, well, murderers.

After a series of nerve-wracking encounters at no fewer than 30 roadblocks, they arrive in Butari and put up in a basic hotel. David and Fergal interview the Rector and Vice-Rector of Butare University. Like others they’ve already met, this couple are far from stupid, but believe the government’s line entirely: that the nation was under threat from the RPF’s 1990 invasion, that war was the only way to defend themselves, that the RPF seek to reassert Tutsi paramountcy and restore Hutu serfdom of pre-1959.

Next day they go to interview the town prefect, Sylvan Nsabimana. They ask him about the fate of the last few hundred Tutsi left alive in the whole region who are being held in a camp right outside the prefect’s office. Nsabimana is all reassurance and tells them that, in fact, he is planning to evacuate the children to nearby Burundi, the following day.

Keane presses him on the murders, on the genocide but, like every government official they meet, Nsabimana repeats the government line that there was no genocide, that the government was protecting the country against attack by the RPF, who intend to restore their oppressive rule. If confronted with examples of actual killings he gives the stock answer that, alas and alack, casualties happen in time of war.

The next day Fergal, Rizu, David and the rest attach themselves to the convoy of lorries carrying Tutsi children to freedom in Burundi. A whole series of nerve-racking roadblocks, which Nsabimana himself negotiates their way through and then, finally, they cross the border and Keane’s Rwandan journey is at an end.

Thoughts

How long did Fergal’s Journey last in total, then? Two weeks? Three weeks? Less than two weeks? Not long and he didn’t really get to talk to that many people, 20 to 30 maximum. Compare and contrast with Philip Gourevitch who visited Rwanda for a total of something like nine months and gives the impression of having spoken to hundreds of people.

Keane’s book is shorter but it is much more intense. The descriptions of his anxiety in long trips through the jungle and his terror at roadblocks manned by drunken soldiery are very vivid. And his first-hand account of seeing the actual bodies piled up in streets and fields and offices and churches is powerful. Almost powerful enough to make you forget the preening opening of the book.

For all his feeble inability to really grasp the genocide, Philip Gourevitch’s book is a lot better. It has far more history and context than Keane’s and he includes testimony and interviews from far more people, including lots of UN officials and, crucially, the brains behind the RPF, Paul Kagame.

And Gourevitch also continues the story on past the genocide itself, for quite a few years, up till 1998, so he gives a far better sense of the ongoing political importance of the huge refugee camps in Zaire, and how they came to trigger the first Congo War – a depth of perspective which is necessarily missing from Keane’s account which, in essence, boils down to vivid reportage of a hurried, stressful 2-week visit to the country in June 1994, smack bang in the middle of its combined civil war and genocide.

He didn’t have to go

The very force of Keane’s candidly described terror keeps prompting the same thought. He undergoes ordeals of tension and stress, bursts out swearing at the drivers, has to get drunk at night to obliterate the sights he’s seen or take sleeping pills. He thinks forlornly of his family. He wishes he were back home. The rector of Butare university invites him to his house to watch Ireland play in the World Cup, in New York, and Keane desperately, desperately wishes he was there.

Well OK, the reader thinks: so go, then. Leave. Hire a taxi, get driven clean out of the danger zone, catch a plane home, be with your family. Tell the BBC you’d like to be the Westminster correspondent. Or work on Strictly Come Dancing. If you don’t like it so much, if it means you end up seeing too many corpses, meeting too many evil people, having too many nightmares, here’s an idea – quit being a foreign correspondent and go home.

No-one is forcing him to repeatedly travel into war zones and risk getting casually murdered by drunk soldiers at a roadblock in the middle of nowhere. This is the choice he has made.

When he keeps telling us how wretched and awful and terrifying and lonely and damaging it is to be in such terrifying zones and see so many corpses and confront so much evil, the reader thinks: well, don’t do it, then. But don’t willingly and voluntarily choose this line of work, hustle for the job, undertake the assignments – then bleat about how horrible it all is and expect my sympathy.

The shameful record of the Americans

The US administration of Bill Clinton did its best to ignore the genocide. America (and Belgium) insisted on reducing the UN presence from 2,500 to 250 on the eve of the genocide, guaranteeing the UN could not intervene, and reinforcing that with a mandate which stipulated no military intervention. Even when they could see Tutsis being hacked down from their offices. ‘Never again must we…. All it requires for evil to flourish is good men to do nothing…We must never forget the victims of the Holocaust… blah blah blah.’ Bullshit.

Once alerted to the killings, the Americans deliberately delayed sending what UN troops remained a consignment of arms and armoured cars, insisting on charging full market rate to the UN which the UN couldn’t afford (p.123).

On President Bill Clinton’s orders the Americans refused at every level of government to use the word ‘genocide, for in that case it would be legally obligated to intervene and America did not want to intervene.

When the victims of a genocide were being murdered in front of their eyes, the Americans did everything in their power to avoid giving any help. Beyond shameful.

French support for the genocidal regime

The French continued to support the genocidal Hutu regime partly because they spoke French, and opposed the Tutsi RPF which ended the genocide at the time and for years afterwards, partly because they spoke English. Seriously.

The French had long supported Habyarimana and had no wish to see him driven from power by the rebels. The pro-Habyarimana faction in Paris was led by François Mitterand’s son Jean-Christophe, who saw Rwanda as part of a Francophone Africa under threat from the encroachments of the English-speaking nations to the north and east i.e. Uganda and Tanzania. Among Jean-Christophe’s gifts to the Rwandan president was the personal jet which was shot out of the sky on 6 April. The implication of this friendship was clear: if the price for maintaining some degree of French influence was the preservation of despots and kleptocrats, then Paris was always more than willing to pay.

In contrast to Habyarimana the leaders of the RPF were largely English-speaking. The long years of exile in Uganda had forced them to abandon the French language. For their part the French maintained a military mission and a sizeable detachment of intelligence officers in Rwanda. With their contacts inside the army and at every level of government and the state media, Paris could not have been ignorant of the genocidal intentions of many of the senior officers and officials. For the French to suggest otherwise would be a lamentable comment on the abilities of their own intelligence services and diplomats. (p.26)

As part of a sustained effort to discredit the invading RPF and continue support for the genocidal Hutu Power regime, a French security agent claimed he had the black box from Habyarimana’s shot-down jet which proves it was the RPF who fired the missiles. But he provided no actual evidence and soon disappears from view (p.117).

[President Habyarimana’s] brother-in-law Protais Zigiranyirazo was up to his neck in the trade in endangered species. Protais was a founder member of the Zero Network and an original shareholder in Radio Milles Collines. A book David has brought with him on our journey, Murder in the Mist, alleges that Protais was involved in the murder of American naturalist Dian Fossey because of her attempts to save the gorillas of the Rwandan rain forest. To date he has not even issued a rebuttal, much less attempted to sue the author. Protais is currently enjoying the sanctuary provided by the government of France, along with his sister Agathe and several other family members. It is not likely that they will see the [presidential] palace again, but they have the security of foreign bank accounts and the sympathy of the Quai d’Orsay (French Foreign Ministry) to console them in exile. I can see what sickens Frank. (pages 119 to 120)

That last sentence refers to the way the entire RFP up to its leader Paul Kagame were sickened at the absolute inaction of the ‘international community’ to prevent the genocide. The inaction was led by America which blocked every attempt to intervene, and France, which energetically supported the genocidal regime, gave it arms and weapons even as the genocide was taking place and set up safe havens in the west of the country for genocidal Hutus fleeing the advancing RPF. At the RPF rolled through the country and brought the genocide to an end, the French government flew the genocidal regime’s leaders to safety in Paris, where they’ve been leading lives of luxury ever since, right up to the present day, 2021. What’s not to despise?

Mistaking genres

Lastly, maybe my negative reaction to Keane’s book is my fault. Maybe I’m being dim. Maybe I’m getting my genres mixed up. Maybe I’m expecting the objectivity of a history from a text which, right from the start, declares it is going to be an entirely subjective account. Only right at the end of the book did it occur to me that this kind of subjective journalism is maybe a variety of confessional literature.

When Keane writes at length about the nightmares he’s suffered ever since his Rwanda trip, about his drinking, about how scared he was at numerous points, about how he lost his temper with the driver and came to loathe their irresponsible RPF guide Albert, how much he missed his wife and how much he wished he could just go home – I found all this tediously subjective, but maybe I’m being an idiot for expecting anything else. It is titled a journey and clearly states right from the start that it is going to be a highly subjective account of one man’s experiences and feelings of a nightmare situation.

And, after all, maybe Keane’s prolonged descriptions of his feelings and psychological struggles are a deliberate strategy to take you with him right into the belly of the beast, to make you feel the fear and see the bodies, designed to be an immersive experience which combines historical background and political analysis with stomach-churning descriptions of what it was like.

I still didn’t like this book, but maybe my allergic reaction is my fault because I was continually judging it by the wrong criteria, assessing a work of confessional journalism as if it was a factual history. Anyway, I’ve given you enough evidence to make up your own mind.

Credit

Season of Blood: A Rwandan Journey by Fergal Keane was published in 1995 by Viking. All references are to the 1996 Penguin paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions and memoirs set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

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

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong (2000)

Comparing Michela Wrong and David van Reybrouck

David van Reybrouck’s account of Congo’s modern history is basically an orthodox chronological account and political analysis interspersed with interviews with the many veterans and eye witnesses he has tracked down and spoken with at length.

Wrong’s account feels completely different, less chronological or, indeed, logical, more thematic. Instead of historical analysis, she brilliantly conveys what it felt like to live in Zaire under Mobutu as she sets about systematically exploring and describing different aspects of Zaire society and culture. Her vividness of approach is demonstrated by the way the book opens with the fall of Mobutu in 1997, going light on political analysis and strong on vivid descriptions of what it felt like to live in a crumbling, corrupt third world country.

Chapter one dwells on the role played in so many African states by key international hotels in their capitals, in Rwanda the Mille Collines, in Zimbabwe the Meikles, in Ethiopia the Hilton, in Uganda the Nile, hotels where presidents mingle with mercenaries, dodgy diamond deals are struck between smartly dressed middlemen, security goons lurked in the background muttering into their lapel mics, and the corridors were cruised by the most expensive hookers in town. And how it felt to be one among the pack of foreign correspondents living in Kinshasa’s Intercontinental Hotel as rumours swirled, troop carriers arrived, the president’s son turned up with a pack of soldiers furiously trying to track down the men who betrayed his father. And then suddenly, overnight, all the military figures switched to wearing tracksuits and casual wear in anticipation of the arrival of the rebel troops.

That’s the kind of picture painting and atmosphere Wrong is ace and conjuring up. How a country’s decline can be measured by the way the expensive carpeting in its hotels starts to smell of mildew, the lifts stop working, the blue paint on the bottom of pools comes off on the swimmers’ feet. Van Reybrouck takes an essentially academic approach spiced with extensive interviews. He is a historian whereas Wrong is a journalist, with a telling eye for detail and snappy one-line quotes.

Obviously, in this 314-page book she tells us an awful lot about the origins, rise and fall of the Mobutu dictatorship which lasted from 1965 to 1997, but it is the fantastically evocative way she conveys what it felt like that makes this book such a classic.

Van Reybrouck gives a detailed explanation of the ethnic tensions in eastern Congo which were exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide and then the constellation of political forces which led the Rwandan and Ugandan presidents to decide to invade eastern Congo and create a military coalition (the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, the AFDL) and select as its leader the long-time Maoist guerrilla leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This is to the good. His account is worth reading and rereading.

But Wrong tells you what it felt like to be in Kinshasa as the rebel army drew ever closer. The panic among Mobutu’s cronies, the so-called mouvanciers up in their gated mansions in the smart Binza district, the rush by the city’s moneyed classes to get visas for foreign destinations, the way the various western embassies practised evacuating their staff across the river Congo to Brazzaville, capital of the once-French colony the Republic of Congo which was unaffected by Mobutu’s fall.

Van Reybrouck gives you high-level analysis, Wrong gives you the sweat and the fear, the paranoia. She tells us everyone knew the game was up when the grizzled old piano player who’d been playing cocktail jazz in the bar of the Intercontinental for as long as anyone could remember one day disappeared.

She describes how the shopkeepers and population prepared for the mass looting which always accompanies regime change, and passes on the advice of an old hand that it’s best to select in advance one and only one item you want to loot and, once the anarchy begins, focus on getting that and only that. Wrong selects a $1,000 leather jacket for when the great pillaging begins.

She describes the way rumours are spread by ‘Radio Trottoir’, Pavement Radio i.e. word on the street. She conveys the mad, feverish atmosphere of a city about to be taken by rebel forces (p.27).

Another difference is that van Reybrouck sees the history of Congo as a tragedy, or series of tragedies, and he affects the reader with his sense of high seriousness. Wrong, on the other hand, has a lively sense of humour and an eye for the absurd detail. She finds almost everything about Zaire farcical, but then she appears to find all of Africa farcical and hopeless.

As for rebuilding the impression given by the scaffolding and myriad work sites dotted around Kinshasa is misleading. The work has never been completed, the scaffolding will probably never be removed. Like the defunct street lamps lining Nairobi’s roads, the tower blocks of Freetown, the faded boardings across Africa which advertise trips to destinations no travel company today services, it recalls another era, when a continent believed its natural trajectory pointed up instead of down. (p.20)

As this quote indicates, another difference is that whereas van Reybrouck’s account is focused with laser-like precision on the history of just the Congo, Wrong’s anecdotes and comparisons freely reference the many other African countries she’s visited and worked in as a foreign correspondent. There’s a lot more international comparison and perspective. Wrong visits places around Congo but also Brussels to interview historians, to visit the Congolese quarter, and Switzerland to track down some of Mobutu’s luxury properties.

And whereas van Reybrouck is optimistic, on the side of Congo’s bloodied but resilient people, Wrong is both more humorous and more pessimistic. According to her, the story is the same all across Africa, one of unstoppable decline and fall.

Talking to the melancholic Colonel, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sense of tragic waste, of crippled potential that so often sweeps over one in Africa. (p.178)

In Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist the Belgian colonials who describe the Congolese as ‘children’ who need order, discipline and control and will make a horlicks of their country if granted independence are condemned as racist bigots – so you must never say anything like that. However, Wrong’s book freely refers to African politics as farcical, its politicians as clowns, and that, apparently, wins prizes.

At times, too many times, politics on Congo resembled one of those hysterical farces in which policemen with floppy truncheons and red noses bounce from one outraged prima donna to another. ‘I’m the head of state. Arrest that man!’ ‘No, I’M the head of state. That man is an imposter. Arrrest him!’ (p.66)

So it’s OK to mock Africans as long as you use the correct phraseology and attitude. Calling them children is a no-no; calling their countries farcical, absurd, ludicrous, surreal, Alice in Wonderland – that’s fine.

And perfectly acceptable to be tired and bored of the absurdity of Africa’s rulers, the comical proliferation of rebels and freedom fighters and guerrilla movements, the bleak iteration of yet another massacre or round of ethnic cleansing somewhere on this blighted continent, like the western media’s news producers and sub-editors ‘shaking their heads over yet another unfathomable African crisis’ (p.7). Africa is for Wrong, ‘a disturbing continent’, ‘Africa, a continent that has never disappointed in its capacity to disappoint’, whose countries brim with ‘anarchy and absurdity’ (p.10).

When the AFDL’s representatives started calling the BBC office in Nairobi in late 1996, claiming they would march all the way to Kinshasa, journalists dismissed them with a weary shrug as yet another unknown guerrilla movement, the length of its constituent acronyms only rivalled by its obscurity, making wild plans and farcical claims. Africa is full of them: they surface, splinter into factions – yet more acronyms – only to disappear with equal suddenness. (p.245)

Several times she mentions Liberia’s drugged freedom fighter who wore wedding dressed and pink lipstick as they mowed down innocent civilians and gang-raped the women. She describes the teenage  FAZ recruits preparing to defend Kinshasa who were so drunk they could barely lift their grenade launchers. When the AFDL rebel soldiers arrive they turn out to be mostly teenagers wearing flip-flops or no shoes at all. Kabila promised to relinquish power once he’d overthrown Mobutu but of course does nothing of the sort. In turn Kabila was himself assassinated (in 2001), replaced by a family member even more corrupt and the whole of East Congo engulfed in a huge, often incomprehensible and seemingly endless war. Farce and tragedy.

The Latin Quarter hit, ‘I’m hearing only bad news from Radio Africa‘ seems as true when Wrong was writing in 2000 or now, in 2021, as when it was released in 1984.

Chapter by chapter

Introduction

Wrong arrived in Zaire as a foreign correspondent in 1994, found her way around, did features on Mobutu and his corrupt circle, the prostration of the economy (‘a country reverting to the Iron Age’, p.31) the uselessness of the army, the universal vibe of fear and poverty. Less than three years later, in autumn 1996, the AFDL seized eastern Congo and began its systematic assault on the country, seizing the mining centre of Lubumbashi in the south while other forces marched on the capital Kinshasa in the west. Wrong is perfectly placed to report on the paranoia of the last days, to fly out to the hot spots, to interview soldiers, shopkeepers, street traders, as well as army officers and government spokesmen.

So the introduction gives us tasters, snapshots: Wrong flying to the pretty lakeside town of Goma which was pillaged by its own inhabitants when the occupying army left. Wrong wandering through the rooms of Mobutu’s legendary palace at Gbadolite, now ruined and looted, the five black Mercedes, the Ming vases.

And she explains the title which is a quote from Joseph Conrad’s classic novella Heart of Darkness about the madness and barbarism he, personally, encountered, in the Congo Free State in 1890, epitomised by the fictional character of Mr Kurz, the high-minded exponent of civilisation who is sent to man an ivory station up the Congo, far from civilisation, and decays and degrades to become an epitome of barbarism and nihilism. Wrong sees herself literally following in Kurz’s footsteps as she explores all aspects of the absurd rule of Mobutu in the mid-90s, then watches his regime collapse in ruins.

Chapter 1

Plunges us into the endgame with a wonderfully evocative description of the atmosphere in Kinshasa and the Intercontinental Hotel where all the foreign correspondents stayed, during the last few days in 1997 October 1997 before Laurent Kabila’s AFDL took the city and Mobutu and his cronies were forced to flee. Snapshots of a city under siege, with brief explanations of Mobutu’s rule, the character of the AFDL and its leader Kabila, their determination to clean up the pigsty and abolish corruption.

Chapter 2

Gives a brisk but effective summary of Stanley’s exploration of the Congo (with backstory about Stanley’s biography) and King Leopold’s disgustingly barbaric regime of cruelty and exploitation, which he called the Congo Free State, 1885 to 1908 (with backstory explaining why Belgium was a relatively new country – founded in 1830 – and its king wanted a colony so as to be taken seriously by the big boys.)

In Brussels she visits the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal, once a whip-wielding colon himself, who has devoted his life to editing and publishing definitive records of the Congo Free State. She visits the Royal Museum for Central Africa and is shocked by the complete absence of references to the atrocities the Belgians carried out there, and to learn that Belgian colonial history is not taught in Belgian schools (p.55).

She takes a tour of buildings by the noted Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta, before pointing out that all the raw materials crafted into these beautiful buildings – the hardwood, onyx, marble, and copper – all came directly from the forced labour of Congolese blacks. Horta was rewarded for his services to Belgian architecture with a barony.

She describes how many of the Free State’s exploitative practices continued after the colony was handed over to Belgian government rule in 1908, including forced labour and use of the dreaded chicotte, the whip made of dried hippopotamus hide. It was only after the Second World War that Congo became less brutally exploitative and a tiny black middle class began to emerge, but if anything the colour bar or informal apartheid against this new breed of évolués or ‘evolved’ blacks grew worse.

Which moves into a description of the appearance, sights and sounds and mentality of the Congolese quarter in Brussels. She ends by making a strong case that Leopold’s atrocities, many of which continued under Belgian colonial rule, acculturated an entire region for 85 long years to abject humiliation, subservience, black market, illegal operations and corruption. Prepared the way, in other words, for just such a dictator as Mobutu.

No malevolent witch doctor could have devised a better preparation for the coming of a second Great Dictator. (p.57)

Chapter 3

Interview with Larry Devlin, the long-retired former CIA station chief in Kinshasa, who emphasises that Wrong only saw the regime at its bitter, pitiful end. She never knew the young, vibrant, charismatic Mobutu or knew the situation of anarchy between elected politicians which his 1965 coup rescued the country from (p.61).

She makes clearer than van Reybrouck or Bennett that Lumumba had actively invited the Soviets to give arms and advisers to crush the secessions. Devlin thinks Lumumba was never a communist, but he was naive. He thought he could invite in thousands of communist advisers at no cost. Devlin says he’d seen that happen in Eastern Europe after the war: your country falls to a communist coup and then Moscow is in charge. So Mobutu’s first coup of September 1960 was not just to bring political peace but to keep the Congo out of Soviet hands – and it worked. Soviet bloc personnel were given 48 hours to leave the country (p.67).

His account emphasises not just that, when the UN and US were slow to respond, Lumumba turned to the Soviets to supply him with arms and strategic advice to put down the secession of two major provinces – but that people of Devlin’s generation had seen this happen before. This was how the Soviets effected their coups in Poland and Czechoslovakia. This is how they established their tyrannies, by taking control of the army and placing personnel in key administrative and political positions. It had never been done in Africa before, but the Americans weren’t about to sit back and watch the Soviets make the experiment. So that’s why the Americans, backed by his political enemies within the country, decided he had to be eliminated. President Eisenhower personally approved CIA plans to assassinate Lumumba (p.77).

Then she backs up to give us the hasty run-up to independence from Belgium in June 1960, the army mutinying for better pay and promotion within days, triggering a mass exodus of the Belgian administrators and technicians who kept the country running, the political rivalry between ‘lethargic’ President Kasavubu (p.66) and passionate Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and how the deadlock between them was broken by young Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, previously Lumumba’s personal secretary, who Lumumba himself had put in charge of the army and who, very bravely, faced down the army mutiny and restored order. Mobutu was encouraged then and ever afterwards by America.

A detailed look at the boyhood and young manhood of Joseph Mobutu from the Ngbani tribe, one of the smaller of Congo’s 250 ethnic groups, emphasising his brightness, reasonableness and extraordinary charisma; educated by Belgian priests, expelled for being a trouble-maker, a few years in the Force Publique rising to rank of sergeant, then contributing (anonymous) articles to new magazines set up for the Congolese, before he committed to becoming a journalist and then came to the attention of Lumumba who was looking for a secretary (pages 68 to 76). Devlin, the CIA man explains how Mobutu was really the best man available when he staged his 1965 coup.

Soon after the 1965 coup Devlin was posted to Vietnam. When he returned to Zaire in 1974 he found a drastically changed man and country. Surrounded by yes men, drinking pink champagne in his palaces, Mobutu was ‘already round the bend’ (p.82).

Chapter 4 Economics

In the immediate aftermath of the coup there were hangings, a new secret police was set up and so on. But the fundamental fact about Mobutu’s regime was he was an economic illiterate. Therefore his sole economic policy was to loot and plunder his country’s natural resources (when the going was good in the late 60s and early 70s) and then creaming the top off huge loans from the World bank and aid agencies. In other words, he didn’t know how to create or run a modern economy. He built a few high-profle white elephants, like the Inga dam, but when the builders left Zaire had no technicians to run it and there was never any coherent plan to create the infrastructure to distribute the electricity to where it was needed. Thus Congo has the greatest hydro-electric potential in the world in the shape of its huge and mighty river – and yet is a country whose cities suffer continual power cuts and outages.

He took up the creed of Pan-Africanism pioneered by Kwame Nkrumah, first Prime Minister of Ghana (who made himself president for life in 1964 and was overthrown by a military coup in 1966 supported by the CIA).

Mobutu promulgated his policies of authenticité, forcing everyone in the country to drop their European Christian names and adopt African names, renaming the state Zaire, renaming Leopoldville Kinshasa and Elizabethville Lubumbashi. He forced everyone to stop wearing European suits and mini skirts and adopt traditional African dress (p.90). He persuaded promoters to hold Miss World and the Ali-Foreman boxing match in Zaire (described in detail in van Reybrouck’s book).

In other words, he demonstrated how facile it is to address ‘cultural’ issues, fuss over ‘identity’ and language and culture. Meanwhile, in the absence of an economic or development plan, the economy tanked and the infrastructure rotted. The first years of his rule were bolstered by the high prices for Zaire’s raw materials created by the Vietnam war, but the end of the war in 1974 combined with the oil crisis to plunge Zaire into an economic hole it never crawled beck out of (p.94).

In 1973 he launched ‘Zaireanisation’ i.e. all foreign held businesses were confiscated by the state with a view to handing them over to ‘the people’ (p.92). The only problem was that ‘the people’ turned out, as when Robert Mugabe did the same thing 20 years later in Zimbabwe, to consist entirely of cronies and clients of Mobutu, who needed to be paid off or kept onside. None of them had a clue how to manage anything and ran businesses large and small into the ground, selling off the assets, living high off the proceeds, then needing further bribes or corruption money when they ran dry. $1 billion of assets were confiscated then squandered. It was gangster economics, ‘Alice in Wonderland finances’ (p.124).

And run on a massive system of cronyism. Mobutu needed so much money because he had to distribute gifts to all his important stakeholders in the manner of a traditional chieftain. Mobutu bought properties for himself around Europe, but he encouraged a system where hundreds of thousands of people scrabbled into the state administration, into the army or civil service, and then used their positions to embezzle, steal, demand bribes and generally be as corrupt as possible. By the mid-1990s Zaire had 600,000 people on the state payroll, doing jobs the World Bank calculated could be done by 50,000 (p.97).

The ambassador to Japan, Cleophas Kamitatu, simply sold the Zairian embassy and pocketed the proceeds. France sold Zaire a fleet of Mirage jets and ten years later, Defence Ministry officials simply sold them and kept the money (p.256). Ministers allotted themselves huge monthly salaries, lavish per diems, and insisted on having two of the very latest Mercedes, and their example was copied all the way down through their ministries, in state-run businesses and onto the street. Everyone stole everything they could, all the time. That’s what a kleptocracy is.

Chapter 5 Congo’s ruined mineral industries

Wrong flies to Katanga to report how nationalisation, corruption and utter mismanagement ran Congo’s mineral industries into the ground, beginning with astonishing stats about the country’s mineral huge wealth, then on to how Mobutu nationalised the Belgian mining corporation, Union Minière, consolidating it into the state-run company Gécamines. Sounds good, doesn’t it, one in the eye for the old imperial power, claiming the nation’s resources for the nation.

Except the nation never saw any of the profits. By 1978 the central bank had ordered Gécamines to transfer its entire annual profit of $500 million directly into a presidential bank account. By 1980 American researchers discovered that company officials were stealing $240 million  a year from Gécamines. Not only stole but smuggled, with huge amounts of diamonds, gold and other precious metals never reaching the books because they were stolen and smuggled abroad. In such an environment, nobody at any level gave a damn about investing in the company, in its stock and infrastructure, and so everything the Belgians had bequeathed the Congolese slowly rotted, decayed, was stolen, till the entire plants were rusting skeletons.

Wrong tours these sites giving us eerie descriptions of entire towns full of abandoned workings, derelict factories, rusting railways. That’s what she means when she described the entire country as slipping back into the Iron Age.

Wrong testifies to the decrepitude of the Shituri plant, describes the white elephant of Inga dam project built solely so Kinshasa kept control over Katanga. Pays an extended visit to the diamond town of Mbuji Mayi in the neighbouring province of Kasai, and interviews traders who explain the deep-seated corruption at every level of the diamond trade and ‘controlled’ by the Societe Miniere de Bakwanga (MIBA). She interviews its long-standing government representative, Jonas Mukamba (p.118) who paid Mobutu a hefty slice of the profits and in exchange was allowed to run Mbuji Mayi as he liked.

Eventually the infrastructure of Mbuji Mayi crumbled and collapsed, as had the mining infrastructure of Katanga. World mineral prices slumped but also, what was being produced was now being almost entirely smuggled. The rake-off from official trade collapsed because official trade collapsed. As the 90s progressed Mobutu lost his power of patronage.

She visits the central bank and the alleyway behind it jokingly referred to as Wall Street because it’s lined with unofficial street money changers. As Mobutu borrowed more and more from abroad and printed more money inflation soared and the currency collapsed. Wheelbarrows full of notes. A 500,000 zaire (the currency) note was printed to general resignation. Printing money led to mind-boggling inflation 9,800% and printing of the 500,000 zaire note. Mobutu had presided over the utter ruination of the economy.

Chapter 6

The collapse in Kinshasa epitomised by 1960s high-rise ministries without functioning lifts. The collapse of public phone system which was replaced by mobile networks, Telecel, for the wealthy. The collapse of the health system exemplified by Mama Yemo hospital which employs guards to prevent patients leaving without paying their bills.

Wrong pays a visit to Kinshasa’s small nuclear reactor, built on sandy soil liable to landslips, hit by a rocket during Kabila’s takeover of power, which had no security at all on the day she visited, and where one or two nuclear rods have recently gone missing.

Chapter 7

An explanation of ‘Article 15’, which is, apparently, the much-quoted ironic dictum by which most Congolese live their lives.

When the province of Kasai seceded soon after independence, it published a 14-article constitution. So many ethnic Luba people returned to the region expecting to become rich that the exasperated secessionist ruler made a speech in which he referred to a fictional, hypothetical 15th article of the constitution, which basically said, in French, ‘Débrouillez-vous!’ meaning ‘get on with it’, ‘figure it out yourself’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘improvise’. Since 1960 has become a universal expression throughout the country to explain ‘the surreal alternative systems invented by ordinary Zaireans to cope with the anarchy’ (p.11) they find themselves living in.

And so Wrong gives an overview of the hundred and one street professions of a people struggling to live in an economy with no jobs and no wages. Wrong gives an extended description of the Mutual Benefit Society run by the disabled street people of Ngobila Beach and the tiny loopholes in the law they exploit to smuggle and sell items.

She meets a fervent Kimbanguist, the religion described by van Reybrouck. Van Reybrouck’s account of Kimbanguism is much more thorough, lucid and logical, but Wrong’s is an in-your-face explanation via one particular believer, Charles, a Zairian who combines high moral principles (‘we are never naked’) with the profession of ‘protocol’ or fixer of bribes at Kinshasa’s notorious N’Djili International Airport.

Chapter 8

Le Sape, Congo’s equivalent of Mods, snappily dressed proles. The origin and purpose of the Society of Ambiencers and Persons of Elegance (SAPE), as explained to Wrong by self-styled ‘Colonel’ Jagger (p.176) as a protest against poverty and the drabness of the constricting African authenticité style demanded by Mobutu.

Then she gives a portrait of the ex-pat community of European idealists and chancers and romantics who came out in the 1950s or 60s and stayed on past independence and into the Mobutu years. This focuses on the example of Daniel Thomas a French construction worker who has repeatedly tried to start small farming businesses only to be repeatedly looted and ruined by his neighbours, and now all of his money is tied up in a farm he can’t sell and who has lost all hope. His wife is exhausted and disillusioned and wants to leave this sick land but they are stuck.

Chapter 9

Wrong details the vast sums loaned or given to Zaire over the years by international banks and especially the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. She interviews insiders who explain that during the 1960s, 70s and 80s very few conditions were attached to vast loans which, predictably, disappeared straight into the bank accounts of Mobutu and cronies.

Chapter 10

Details of the vast palace Mobutu had built for himself at Gbadolite in the jungle in the north of the country, right on the border with Central African Republic. It’s said to have cost $100 million, with an airstrip big enough for Concorde to land on. Musical fountains, ornamental lakes, model farm, gilt, marble. This is what a lot of Western aid paid for. Eventually it came to seem too big and imposing so… he had another one built a few miles away at Kwale, with an olympic size swimming pool,

The story of Pierre Janssen who married Mobutu’s daughter, Yaki, on 4 July 1992, and so became the only white person in Mobutu’s inner circle and a few years later revealed all in a kiss-and-tell memoir. The Moules flown in from Belgium, huge bouquets of flowers flown in from Amsterdam, cakes flown in from Paris along couturiers and barbers.

The weirdness that after his first wife, Marie Antoinette, generally reckoned to be a restraining influence on him, died in 1977, he married his mistress Bobi Ladawa, and took as a new mistress…her twin sister, Kossia. They socialised together, were seen together. Wrong speculates that there might have been a voodoo, animistic belief that the twins would ward of the nagging spirit of his first wife, for twins are regarded in Africa as having totemic powers (p.223).

Chapter 11

A brisk account of the Rwandan genocide which is in a hurry to explain the longer and more significant consequence, which was the creation of vast camps for Hutu refugees just across the borders in Zaire and how these camps, supported by huge amounts of foreign aid, were reorganised by the thuggish Hutu genocidaires who set about planning their revenge attack on Rwanda. By 1995 there were some 82,000 thriving enterprises in the camps which had become mini-towns (p.239), no surprise when you consider that the UNHCR and aid organisations had pumped at least $336 million into them, more than the Kinshasa government’s total annual operating budget.

In early 1996 the Hutu leadership undertook a mission to ethnically cleanse the North Kivu region of its ethnic Tutsis, massacring those it could find, forcing the rest to flee. In late 1996 it was south Kivu’s turn to be cleansed. The local Tutsis, known as the Banyamulenge had watched the Hutus slowly take control of the region, launch revenge raids into Rwanda, and had called on the UN and Kinshasa to neutralise the Hutu genocidaires but the UN did nothing and Mobutu gave them tacit support.

Which is why in October 1996 four rebel groups, with the backing of the Rwandan and Ugandan governments formed the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL) and took the fight to the Hutus, forcing the genocidal Interahamwe to flee west and majority of the refugees to traipse back into Rwanda.

Chapter 12

The main thing about the so-called First Congo War is there was hardly any fighting. The Zairian army, the Forces Armées Zairoises, the FAZ, was a joke and ran away at the first threat of conflict. The only violence came from the FAZ as they looted, burned and raped their way through the villages en route back to Kinshasa. There were a few set-piece battles but for most of the AFDL forces the war consisted of a very long march through jungle, sometimes using Zaire’s decaying roads, mostly using the jungle paths which have replaced tarmacked roads in many areas.

Wrong interviews Honoré Ngbanda Nzambo Ko Arumba, for five years the feared head of Zaire’s security service who explains why the FAZ was so useless. It all stems from Mobutu’s basic management technique which was to keep the army divided between different factions, to create a series if confusingly titled security and military units, to have a multitude of generals and security ministers and to keep them all guessing. To set them in deliberate rivalry, to give them contradictory orders, to create permanent confusion, suspicion and paranoia. Why? Simples: to prevent any single person or unit from becoming a centre of real power and so a threat to his rule.

Also, most of these units were kept down in Bas Congo, close to Kinshasa. Zaire had almost no border guards or forces. Why? Because the army was not designed to fight other countries or protect the country’s security; it was an internal security machine whose sole raison d’etre was protecting the president.

Another reason was simple corruption. The many generals and senior ranks Mobutu created, solely with a view to placating the numerous tribes and/or keeping prominent figures onside, to a man practiced various forms of corruption and graft, the simplest of which was to take the soldiers’ pay for themselves. Which explains why soldiers went without any pay at all for months on end, sometimes half a year. Which was the central reason why they mutinied and not only mutinied but went on great rampages of looting; they were claiming their back pay, taking what they though society owed them. That was the root cause of the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

And then there was greed raised to the level of comic farce. Most officers or army administrators had been selling off stock for cash for years. Thus the FAZ had out of date East European guns, the wrong ammo for their guns. Initially army commanders in Kivu sold the best of their munitions to the AFDL for a quick profit, arms and ammo the AFDL then turned back on the FAZ, who turned and ran.

Lastly, the neighbouring countries turned against Mobutu. Rwanda and Uganda were the AFDL’s main backers, but the Angolan government had for decades resented Mobutu’s support for the UNITA rebels and took the opportunity to send forces into Zaire to crush their base camps. Zambia co-operated by letting the AFDL cross its land to reach the south. Zimbabwe and Eritrea sent the rebels modern arms and Tanzania turned a blind eye to rebel bases on its territory.

By March 1997 the AFDL had taken Kisangani, next came Mbuji Mayi, then Lubumbashi, capital of the mining region in the south. It took just seven months from the launch of their campaign till the first AFDL troops arrived outside Kinshasa prompting the atmosphere of paranoid panic Wrong describes in the first chapter of this book.

Chapter 13

As so often happens with tyrants, Mobutu’s overthrow coincided with his final fatal illness. It’s as if their imminent fall from power triggers a collapse in their bodies. King Leopold II lasted barely a year after he handed the Congo Free State over to the Belgian government (February 1908) and in an eerily parallel way, the AFDL’s seven-month advance on Kinshasa coincided with 66-year-old Mobutu’s diagnosis with prostate cancer.

As the rebel forces relentlessly advanced westwards, Mobutu was in and out of the most expensive private clinics in the world in Switzerland. Thus his personal intervention and decision making was almost entirely absent during the crucial months. When he returned to his capital in March 1997, he could barely walk and had to be supported from the plane.

On 16 May 1997, following failed peace talks chaired by President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, Mobutu fled into exile and Kabila’s forces proclaimed victory. Mobutu died in exile in Morocco 3 and a half months later, 7 September 1997.

This is where Wrong places a fascinating interview with Mobutu’s son by his second wife Bobi Ladawa, Nzanga Mobutu. He mourns his father and insists he loved his family and loved his country. Wrong gives her account of the very last few days, especially negotiation with the Americans who tried to broker a deal with Kabila, partly through Nzanga’s eyes, partly through the account of US ambassador Daniel Simpson who took part in the actual discussions, and Bill Richardson, the troubleshooter US President Bill Clinton handed the tricky task of persuading Mobutu to relinquish power and tell his troops not to fight the AFDL as it entered Kinshasa, a confrontation which would have led to a bloodbath, anarchy and another Great Pillaging (p.271).

What comes over is the absolute centrality of the Americans as power brokers in the situation, but the refusal of a very sick Mobutu to formally abdicate and of Kabila to make any concessions. Right at the last his generals abandoned him. The knackered Russian Ilyushin jet Mobutu and his close family flew out of Kinshasa to Gbadolite in was peppered with machine gun fire by his very pissed-off personal guard, the Division Spéciale Présidentielle (DSP) who he was abandoning to their fates (p.279).

Chapter 14 Ill-gotten gains

A few months after Kabila took power, he set up the quaintly named Office of Ill Gotten Gains (OBMA) to identify Mobutu’s looted assets, including his multiple properties abroad (p.286). Wrong meets the first director of OBMA, former nightclub owner turned rebel soldier Jean-Baptise Mulemba lists and visits some. Three years after his fall, Wrong visits his large Swiss mansion at Les Miguettes, now falling into neglect.

Epilogue

The epilogue reminds us that this book was published in 2000, when Congo was still in the toils of what became known as the Second Congo War and Kabila was still president. She was not to know Kabila would be assassinated in 2001 and the war drag on for years.

Wrong shows us the dispiriting process whereby the initial high hopes about him and his crusade to undo corruption soon faded, as he found himself having to resort to all Mobutu’s old techniques for trying to hold his wartorn country together, namely creaming money off foreign loans, the mining companies, and even introducing tougher taxes on ordinary Congolese, in order to keep the regional governors and all manner of fractious stakeholders onboard.

Anyway, as Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 it ends with a survey of the many depressing tokens which indicated that Kabila was falling into Mobutu’s old ways, only without the dictator’s charisma or shrewdness. Blunter. Cruder. She calls Kabila a ‘thug’ (p.300).

And she ends with an assessment of whether Mobutu’s missing billions will ever be recovered. The short answer is No, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. All the evidence is that millions went through his hands but en route to the key stakeholders, political rivals, regional warlords, he needed to pay to follow him.

At a deep structural level, the corruption and gangster economy run by Mobutu and then Kabila may be the only way to keep such a huge country, divided into starkly different regions, populated by some 250 different ethnic groups, together.

God, what a thought. The population of Congo in the 1920s when the first estimates about how many died during Leopold’s rule, was said to be 10 million. By the date of independence 1960 described in Ronan Bennett’s novel The Catastrophist it had only risen to 15 million or so. When Wrong’s book went to press in 2000 she gives Congo’s population as 45 million. And now, in 2021? It is 90 million! Good grief. What future for a ruined country overrun by its own exploding population?

France

The French come out of this account, as usual, as scumbags. France was ‘Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend’ (p.287), ‘always the most loyal’ of his Western supporters (p.258). From the 1960s Zaire came to be regarded by the French government as part of its ‘chasse gardée’:

that ‘private hunting ground’ of African allies whose existence allowed France to punch above its weight in the international arena. (p.196)

The French believed they understood the African psyche better than the Anglo-Saxon British or Americans. They clung on to belief in their mission civilisatrice despite their not-too-impressive record in Vietnam and Algeria. Since the 1960s the French government has promoted la francophonie “the global community of French-speaking peoples, comprising a network of private and public organizations promoting equal ties among countries where French people or France played a significant historical role, culturally, militarily, or politically.” (Wikipedia)

The practical upshot of this high-sounding policy was that the French government promised Mobutu their undying support, no matter how corrupt and evil he became. The French government funded schools and media – so long as they promoted the French language. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, French president from 1974 to 1981, was a great friend of African dictators and secured them many loans which just happened to coincide with a building firm run by Valery’s cousin winning quite a few contracts to build Zairean ministries and bank buildings and so on (p.131). Very handy.

It meant military aid, too. When rebels invaded Shaba from Angola, France parachuted legionnaires in to fight them. During the First Pillaging of 1991 France flew in troops to police the streets.

After his downfall, when the OBMA set out to track down the billions of dollars Mobutu had sequestered abroad, the lack of co-operation from the French government stood out.

Confronted with the AFDL’s legal and moral crusade, the silence from France, Mobutu’s most faithful Western friend, was deafening. (p.287)

But France’s standout achievement in the region was to protect the Hutu instigators of the great genocide of Rwanda. This is a hugely controversial subject, which I’ll cover in reviews of specifically about the Rwanda genocide, but in brief: the French government supported the Hutu government. The French president was personal friends with the Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, so when his plane was shot down and the Hutu government went into panic mode, the French government’s first response was to support them and to carry on supporting them even as they carried out the 100-day genocide. When the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front invaded Rwanda to put an end to the genocide, France continued to support the Hutus and helped the genocidaires escape, along with millions of other Hutu refugees into eastern Congo, where they continued to support them, even after the evidence was long in the public domain that they had just carried out the worst genocide since the Holocaust.

Because for the French government, all that matters is the glory of France, the prestige of France, the strength of the Francophonie. Morality, justice, human rights, all come a poor second to France’s unwavering commitment to its own magnificence.

Hence France’s unwavering support for the evil kleptocratic dictator Mobutu right up till his last days; hence France’s support of the Hutu government, even after it became clear they were carrying out a genocide. A guilt France has taken a long time to face up to, has finally admitted, albeit hedged with reservations and caveats.

Repeated stories

Stories, gossip and educational facts are learned through repetition. Wrong repeats the description of big statue of Henry Morton Stanley, long ago torn down and lying rusting outside a warehouse in Kinshasa. Several times she refers to the two great Pillagings of 1991 and 1993.

She repeats the story about the Congo’s store of uranium dug from the mines of Shinkolobwe being sent by a foresightful colonial administrator to New York where it was discovered by scientists from the Manhattan Project and refined to become the core of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima (p.140).

Her chapter about King Leopold’s rape of Congo under hypocritical claims of freeing it from slavery and barbarism repeats much of the material I’ve read in Hochschild and van Reybrouck. She repeats Hochschild’s mentions of Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem’s estimate that 13 million died or fled the region during Leopold’s rule.

Van Reybrouck thought the tragic story of Lumumba betrayed by his secretary and friend Mobutu was like a Shakespearian tragedy. Wrong thinks it is Biblical like Cain and Abel, two beloved brothers who end up betraying each other. It certainly haunts the imagination of novelists and historians and commentators in a way the later, long rule of Mobutu rarely did, and the rule of Laurent Kabila not at all.

Credit

In The Footsteps of Mr Kurz by Michela Wrong was published by Fourth Estate in 2000. All references are to the 2001 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

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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.

Hobsbawm reviews

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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 communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
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Communism in England

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm (1975)

The astonishing world-wide expansion of capitalism in the third quarter of the [nineteenth] century…
(The Age of Capital, page 147)

Eric Hobsbawn (1917 to 2012) was one of Britain’s leading historians. A lifelong Marxist, his most famous books are the trilogy covering what he himself termed ‘the long 19th century’, i.e. from the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 to the Great War in 1914. These three books are:

  • The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (1962)
  • The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975)
  • The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987)

To which he later appended his account of the ‘short’ 20th century, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914 to 1991 (1994).

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 does what it says on the tin and provides a dazzlingly panoramic overview of the full economic, political and social events right across Europe and indeed around the world, from the famous year of revolutions (1848) through to his cutoff point 27 years later.

In his preface Hobsbawm says that the end of the era can be taken as 1873, which marked the start of what contemporaries came to call the Great Depression, a decades-long slump in trade and industry which is usually taken to have lasted from 1873 to 1896. Maybe he and the publishers chose the slightly later date of 1875 so as to end it precisely 100 years before the book’s publication date. Certainly nothing specifically important happened in 1875, it’s just a convenient marker.

General response

When I was a student in the 1980s I much preferred Hobsbawm’s rip-roaring and colourful trilogy to his dry economic volume, Industry and Empire: From 1750 to the Present Day (1968). Now the situation is reversed. I like the earlier book because it is more factual, which makes the central proposition of its first part – that the vital spur to the industrial revolution was Britain’s position at the centre of a complex global network of colonies which allowed it to import raw materials from some and export finished products to others at great profit – all the more powerful and persuasive.

By contrast, The Age of Capital is much more overtly a) Marxist and b) rhetorical and, after a while, both these aspects began to seriously detract from my enjoyment.

1. Very dated Marxism

Hobsbawm loses no opportunity to bang on about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. These are both foreign words, French and German, respectively, and, for me, they began to really stick out from the text. I began to circle them in pencil, along with his other buzzwords, ‘capitalism’ and ‘revolution’, and this helped to visually confirm my sense that some passages of the book are entirely constructed from this dusty Marxist rhetoric. ‘The demands of the bourgeoisie…’, ‘The bourgeois market…’, ‘The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie…’, literally hundreds of times.

Back in the 1980s it didn’t stick out so much because a) as a humanities student I moved in an atmosphere permanently coloured with excitable student rhetoric about ‘the revolution’ and the overthrow of ‘capitalism’ and so on, and b) this reflected the rhetoric’s widespread use in the public domain, where you heard a lot more of this sort of terminology coming out of the 1980s Labour Party in the era of the Miners Strike and the Militant Tendency and so on.

But when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all the steam went out of international socialism. Up till then the rhetoric of revolution had a genuine sense of threat or menace – not that there was necessarily going to be a revolution tomorrow, but there had been, and there could be again, and so it felt like some kind of communist revolution was, at the very least, a real, conceptual possibility. And this sense of possibility and threat was reinforced by the number of genuinely communist governments around the world, all 15 Soviet states, all of China, half of Europe, much of south-east Asia, as well as the various Marxist guerrilla groups across Africa and Latin America. It was a rhetoric, a set of ideas and a mindset you couldn’t help engaging with every day if you watched the news or read newspapers.

File:Communist countries 1979-1983.png

Communist countries 1979 to 1983. Source: Wikipedia

These terms had real-world presence and possibilities because they were the official rhetoric of half the governments of the world. The Soviet Union, Chinese or Cuban governments routinely made pronouncements condemning the ‘capitalist countries’, attacking ‘bourgeois liberalism’, criticising ‘western imperialists’ and so on.

Now, decades later, all this has disappeared. Gross injustice there still is, and sporadic outbreaks of left-wing-sounding movements for fairness. But they lack the intellectual cohesion and above all the sense of confidence (and funding) and threat which ‘revolutionary’ movements were given in the 1960s, 70s and 80s by the vast presence and threat of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. John Le Carré’s thrillers had such an impact because behind the small number of spies battling it out there was the real sense that a war might break out, that espionage might play a role in the actual undermining of the West.

What I’m driving at is that Hobsbawm’s relentless focus on the political movements of the workers of his era, of the proletariat and radicals and socialists and so on of the 1860s and 1870s, now looks quaint and dated. Of course 1848 to 1875 was the era of the triumph of capitalism and the response of workers and workers parties and liberals and intellectuals all across Europe was often couched in terms of socialism and even communism, and Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were alive and organising and writing, yes, of course.

But this book’s relentless focus on the plight of ‘the workers’ and the formation of ‘the proletariat’ is not only obviously biased and parti pris but now, in our post-communist era, comes over as dated and contrived. He was writing in the mid-1970s to a widespread acceptance of very left-wing politics which was common not only among academics but in trade unions and major political parties all across Europe and which has now… vanished.

And comes over as boring. I got bored of the way Hobsbawm casually labels the working classes or the populations of non-western countries as ‘victims’, as if absolutely everyone in 1860s China or Persia or Egypt or Africa were helpless children.

I’m just reading a passage where he lambasts the Victorian bourgeoisie for its ‘prejudices’ but his own worldview is just as riddled with prejudice, clichés and stereotypes – the ‘bourgeoisie’ is always 100% powerful exploiters; everyone else is always 100% helpless ‘victims’; only Karl Marx understood what was going on; the holy quest for ‘revolution’ went into abeyance during these years but was to revive and flourish in the 1880s, hurrah!

He repeats certain phrases, such as ‘bourgeois liberalism’, so many times that they eventually become empty of meaning, little more than slogans and boo words.

‘Here is the hypocrite bourgeois in the bosom of his smug family while the workers slave away in his factory’, BOO!

‘Here are the socialist intellectuals and more educated workers seeking to organise labour and planning for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois society and the seizure of the means of production by the workers’, HOORAY!

‘Here are the Great Thinkers of the period, Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, whose writings supported raw capitalism, racism and eugenics’, BOO!

‘Here are Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels, noble humanitarians who were the only ones to grasp the scale of the socio-economic changes the industrialised world was undergoing’, HOORAY!

2. Hobsbawm’s superficial treatment prevents understanding

This brings me to the other major flaw in the book which is that it reads to me, now, as so superficial on almost all the specific events it covers, as to be actively misleading.

As a starry-eyed and fairly uneducated student it came as a dazzling revelation to learn just how many huge and momentous events took place during this packed 25-year period. It was my first introduction to the 1848 revolutions and the Paris Commune, to the Taiping Rebellion and the American Civil War and so on, all of which stretched my historical understanding and broadened my perspectives on world history.

However, rereading it now, 30 years later, I think Hobsbawm’s presentation of many of these subjects is so brief and is so skewed by the way he forces everything into his Marxist worldview – everything is shoehorned into the same framework of capitalism and proletariat and bourgeoisie – as to be actively misleading.

Because every event he covers is described in terms of the triumph of the liberal-capitalist bourgeoisie over either their own proletariat or entire foreign nations (for example, China or India) everything ends up sounding very samey. He doesn’t distinguish between the enormous cultural, economic, legal and historical differences between nations – between, for example the ‘bourgeoisie’ of America, Britain and Germany, all very different things – he doesn’t pay attention to the complexities and unexpected turns and ironies which defy Marxism’s neat patterns and limited repertoire of concepts.

This generalising tendency makes a lot of the events of the era sound the same and this actively prevents a proper understanding of history’s complexities and strangeness. It was only when I read specific books on some of the events he describes that I came to really understand the complexity and specificity of events which Hobsbawm, for all his verve and rhetoric, often leaves badly unexplained.

For example, I’ve just read Hobsbawm’s description of the Paris Commune (pages 200 to 202) and am profoundly unimpressed. He skimps on the historical detail or the actual events of the Commune, preferring to give a shallow, teenage account of how much it scared the European bourgeoisie and how they took fright at the sight of workers running their own government etc.

Its [the Commune’s] actual history is overlaid by the enormously powerful myth it generated, both in France itself and (through Karl Marx) in the international socialist movement; a myth which reverberates to this day, notably in the Chinese People’s Republic… If it did not threaten the bourgeois order seriously, it frightened the wits out of it by its mere existence. Its life and death were surrounded by panic and hysteria, especially in the international press, which accused it of instituting communism, expropriating the rich and sharing their wives, terror, wholesale massacre, chaos, anarchy and whatever else haunted the nightmares of the respectable classes – all, needless to say, deliberately plotted by the International. (p.201)

See what I mean by rhetoric? Heavy on rhetoric and references to Marx, the International, communist China, revolution, bourgeois order and so on. But where are the facts in that passage? There aren’t any.

Hobsbawm fails to explain the context of the Franco-Prussian War or the complex sequence of events which led to the declaration of the Commune. He glosses over the way the workers’ government came into being, the disagreements among various factions, the executions of hostages which introduced a note of terror and violence into the situation, which was then amply repaid by the French government forces when they retook Paris arrondissement by arrondissement and the mass executions of communards which followed. I only came to properly appreciate the Commune’s grim complexity when, many decades later, I read The Fall of Paris by Alistair Horne (1965)

Same with the Crimean War, which Hobsbawm dismisses as a notorious fiasco and more or less leaves at that (p.96). It wasn’t until I read The Crimean War by Orlando Figes (2010) a few years ago that I for the first time understood the long-term geopolitical forces at work (namely the Ottoman Empire’s decay and the fierce ambition of Russia to seize the Straits and extend their territory all the way to Constantinople), the complicated sequence of events which led up to the outbreak of war, and the multiple ways in which it was, indeed, a mismanaged disaster.

Same with the American Civil War (pages 170 to 173). Hobsbawn gives a breath-takingly superficial sketch (‘For four years the civil war raged’) and, surprisingly for such a left-wing writer, doesn’t really give slavery its due weight. He is more interested in the way victory for the North was victory for American capitalism, which was the view of Marx himself.

Anyway, it wasn’t until I read James McPherson’s epic history of the American Civil War, decades later, that I really understood the long-term causes of the war, the huge conceptual frameworks within which it took place (I’m still awed at the ambition of some of the southern slavers to create a new and completely separate nation which would include all the Caribbean and most of Central America), the terrible, appalling, mind-searing horrors of slavery, the strong case made by the southern states for secession, and the technological reasons (development of better guns) why it went on so long and caused such immense casualties (620,000 dead).

Here are books on specific events or figures from the period, which I would strongly in preference to Hobsbawm if you really want to fully understand key events from the period:

Same on the domestic front. By limiting his description of British society to concepts of capital, capitalists, bourgeoisie and proletariat, Hobsbawm, in his concern with identifying the structural and economic parallels between all the capitalist nations of the West, loses most of the details which make history, and life, interesting.

I came to this book immediately after reading Richard Shannon’s book, The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865 to 1915 which is a long, sometimes rather turgid, but nonetheless fascinating and detailed analysis of the high politics of Britain during the period, which views them almost entirely in terms of the complicated challenges faced by successive British leaders in trying to keep the various factions in their parties onside while they negotiated the minefields of domestic and international politics. Among other things, Shannon’s book brilliantly conveys the matrix of intellectual and political traditions which politicians like Gladstone and Disraeli sought to harness, and how they both were trying to preserve visions of a past equilibrium or social balance which probably never existed, while the world hurried them relentlessly onwards.

By contrast, Hobsbawm’s account gives you no idea at all of the characters and worldviews of the leading politicians of the day; they are all just representatives of the ‘bourgeoisie’, taken as, for all intents and purposes, identical, whether in America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and so on. (The one possible exception is Bismarck, who emerges with a very clear political agenda, all of which he achieved, and so impresses Hobsbawm.)

The book’s strengths

Where the book does score, what made its reputation when it was published and has maintained it ever since, is the bravura confidence with which Hobsbawm leaps from one continent to another, mimicking in the structure of his text the phenomenal spread of the industrial revolution and the new capitalist ways of managing production, new social relations, a new economy, and new trading relations, new and unprecedented ways of doing things which spread like wildfire around the world. The first half of the book is crammed with raw facts and statistics about the West’s astonishing feats of industrialisation and engineering. Here are some highlights:

1848, the ‘springtime of peoples’

1848 saw political revolution across Europe. I have summarised these in a review of 1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008). The revolutions of 1848 generated a huge amount of rhetoric, primarily by middle class nationalists and liberals, but also from ideologists for the new ideas of socialism and communism.

But the key thing about the 1848 revolutions and the so-called ‘springtime of peoples’ is that they failed. Within a year, year and a half at most, they had all been crushed. Some political gains were made, serfdom was abolished in Hungary, but broadly speaking, within two years the kings and emperors were back in control.

All except in the most politically unstable country of Europe, France, which overthrew its king, endured three years of unstable democracy and then elected a buffoon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, to become their emperor, Napoleon III (Napoleon counted his father as Napoleon II, hence the way he named himself the third Napoleon). The French replaced an inept king with a populist buffoon. The left was decisively crushed for nearly 40 years, only reviving in the harsher environment of the 1880s.

The labour movement [across Europe] had not so much been destroyed as decapitated by the failure of the 1848 revolutions and the subsequent decades of economic expansion. (p.133)

Boom years of the 1850s

The 1848 revolutions were bitterly fought, there was a lot of bloodshed which amounted to civil war in some parts of Europe, but apart from the fact that they all failed in their aims of establishing liberal republics, the other key thing about them that Hobsbawm brings out is they were the end of a process, not the beginning.

The 1840s are often referred to as the Hungry Forties because of the malign impact of industrialisation on many populations, combined with a run of bad harvests. BUT 1850 saw all this change, with a sudden industrial boom which lasted most of the rest of the 1850s and a run of good harvests.

With the result that the ‘working class militancy’ so beloved of a Marxist like Hobsbawm fizzled out. Chartism, which had at one point threatened the state in Britain, disappeared and the same with the other movements across Europe. All except for the nationalist movements in Germany and Italy, which were by no means socialist or for the workers. The unification of Germany was brought about by Bismarck, the opposite of a socialist.

1848 gold rush

Much more important for the global economy was the discovery, in the same year, 1848, of gold in California. This is the kind of thing Hobsbawm is good at, because he has the figures at his fingertips to show how dramatically the gold rush drew the Pacific world closer together. An unprecedented number of Chinese crossed the sea to find their fortunes in California, part of the huge influx of migrants who boosted San Francisco’s population from 812 in 1848 to 35,000 just 4 years later (p.79).

Crews of ships docking in San Francisco regularly absconded in their entirety, leaving the wooden ships to rot, many of them eventually being torn up and used as building materials. Such was the pull of gold and the mushroom wealth it created, that fleets and food were attracted up the coast from faraway Chile.

The gold rush also acted as a financial incentive for the completion of the transcontinental railways being built at the time (the line right across America was completed in 1869). Previously California had been cut off by the huge Rocky mountains. Now there was the incentive of gold to complete a transport link to it, allowing the traffic of food from the mid-West.

Globalisation

The gold rush in California (shortly followed by one in Australia) is a good example of one of the overall themes of the book, which is that this era saw the advent of Globalisation.

The interdependence of the world economy could hardly be better demonstrated. (p.79)

Due to the railway, the steamer and the telegraph…the geographical size of the capitalist economy could suddenly multiply as the intensity of its business transactions increased. The entire globe became part of this economy. This creation of a single expanded world is probably the most significant development of our period…for practical purposes an entirely new economic world was added to the old and integrated into it. (p.48)

In this industrial capitalism became a genuine world economy and the globe was therefore transformed from a geographical expression into a constant operational reality. History from now on became world history. (p.63)

No wonder that observers saw the economic world not merely as a single interlocking complex, but as one where each part was sensitive to what happened elsewhere, and through which money, goods and men moved smoothly and with increasing rapidity, according to the irresistible stimuli of supply and demand, gain and loss and with the help of modern technology. (p.82)

…the ever-tightening network of global communications, whose most tangible result was a vast increase in the flow of international exchanges of goods and men… (p.85)

For the historian the great boom of the 1850s marks the foundation of a global industrial economy and a single world history. (p.88)

… the extraordinary widening and deepening  of the world economy which forms the basic theme of world history at this period. (p.207)

Second industrial revolution

There are varying opinions about how many industrial revolutions there were. From Hobsbawm’s accounts here and in Industry and Empire it seems clear the first industrial revolution centred on cotton production, took place in Lancashire, and relied on British dominance of international trade, since 100% of the raw material was imported (from the American South) and a huge percentage was then exported (to Africa and India).

There was a slump in the textile economy in the 1830s and Hobsbawm briefly entertains the counter-factual possibility that the process of industrialisation, which had, after all, only touched a relatively tiny part of the world’s surface, might have sputtered out and died altogether.

But it was saved by a second wave of renewed industrial activity leading to phenomenal growth in production of coal and iron, with accompanying technical innovations, which were catalysed by the new technology connected with the railway (which Hobsbawm tells us Karl Marx thought of as capitalism’s ‘crowning achievement’, p.48).

Railway mania

Hobsbawm explains how the railway mania, at first in Britain, then in other industrialising nations, was driven by financial factors, namely the need for capitalists who had acquired large amounts of capital for something to invest in.

Hobsbawm has some lyrical passages, the kind of thing most readers of this book long remember, describing the astonishing feats of finance and engineering and labour which flung huge lengths of iron railroad across the continents of the world between the 1840s and the 1870s, connecting coasts with hinterlands, linking the world together as never before. Many readers remember Hobsbawm’s awed descriptions of the astonishing achievements of individual railway entrepreneurs such as Thomas Brassey, who at one point was employing 80,000 men on five continents (pages 70 to 73).

Such men thought in continents and oceans. For them the world was a single unit, bound together with rails of iron and steam engines, because the horizons of business were like their dreams, world-wide. (p.74)

He points out that Jules Verne’s famous novel of 1873, Around the World in Eighty Days, was fantastically topical to its time. In effect its protagonist, Phileas Fogg, was testing and showcasing the spread of the new railway technology which had girdled the earth (p.69).

Map of the trip

Map of Philea Fogg’s route in Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (Map created by Roke. Source: Wikipedia)

The electric telegraph

Even more dramatic than railways was the development of the electric telegraph which Hobsbawm describes in detail on pages 75 to 78. It was the telegraph which created the first and definitive communications revolution. In 1848 you had to wait months for letters to arrive from another continent. By 1875 news could be telegraphed from England to America in minutes. It was a transformation in human relations, perception and psychology.

Hobsbawm goes on to make the interesting point that this globalisation was still very limited and focused on high profit areas and routes. Only a hundred miles from the railway and telegraph, billions of people still lived with more or less feudal technology, the fastest vehicle being the ox-cart.

Right from the beginning the process of globalisation created an even bigger zone of unglobalisation, what is now often called the ‘left behind’. So Phileas Fogg’s famous journey has this additional interpretation, that it was a journey along the frontier between the newly globalised and the still untouched. In the novel Phileas travels a kind of borderline between the deep past and the ever-accelerating future.

Production figures

Britain produced 2.5 million tons of iron in 1850, in 1870 6 million tons, or about half the world’s total. Over the same period world production of coal increased by two and a half times, world output of iron four times. Global steam power increased from an estimated 4 million horsepower in 1850 to 18.5 million HP by 1870. In 1859 2,000 million barrels of oil were produced in the USA, in 1874, 11 million barrels. The book ends with a dozen pages of tables conveying these and many other examples of the explosion in productivity and output, and maps showing the spread of trade routes and emigration movements around the world.

The industrialisation of the German Federation between 1850 and 1870 had major geopolitical implications, creating the industrial might which helped Bismarck win three wars in succession and create a united Germany, which has been a decisive force in Europe ever since (p.56).

World fairs

As their economic system, businesses and military might spread around the world, what Hobsbawm calls the ‘liberal bourgeoisie’ celebrated in a series of world’s fairs, starting with the famous Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London at which no fewer than 14,000 firms exhibited (1851), followed by Paris 1855, London 1862, Paris 1867, Vienna 1873 and Philadelphia 1875 (p.47).

Mass migration

The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw the largest migrations in human history to that point. Between 1846 and 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America (p.228). Between 1851 and 1880 about 5.3 million people left the British Isles (3.5 million to the USA, 1 million to Australia, half a million to Canada).

More subtly, maybe, there was large scale inner migration from the countryside to the new mushroom towns and cities of the industrial revolution, creating vast acreages of appallingly squalid, over-crowded slums without any sanitation, water etc. These were to be the settings for the poverty literature and government reports of the 1880s and 1890s which brought about sweeping changes in town planning at the end of the century and into the 1900s.

The challenge to the developing world

The corollary of the notion that industrial ‘liberal capitalism’ spread its tentacles right around the world during this period, drawing all nations and peoples and places into its ravenous quest for profit, was the challenge this represented to all the non-Western nations and other cultures. Hobsbawn has sections describing the responses of the Ottoman Empire, the world of Islam, the Chinese Empire, the Persian Empire and the Japanese to the growing challenge from what he glibly calls ‘the West’.

His passages on these nations suffer from the same shortcomings I’ve listed above, namely that they are brief and superficial. To really understand what happened in China during this period, I would recommend The Penguin History of Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, 1850 to the Present by Jonathan Fenby (2013). For an overview of why the non-Western empires and cultures proved incapable of matching the West’s dynamism, I recommend the outstanding After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 to 2000 by John Darwin. For descriptions of the internal crises the transformation sparked, generally leading to the overthrow of the old regimes, in the Ottoman Empire, China, Japan in a controlled way, I would recommend you to find books specifically about those countries.

Wars

It was an era of wars. Which era hasn’t been?

  • The Second Carlist War (1846 to 1849) was a minor Catalan uprising
  • The Taiping Rebellion aka the Taiping Civil War or the Taiping Revolution, 1850 to 1864
  • The Crimean War, October 1853 to February 1856
  • American Civil War, 12 April 1861 to 9 April 1865
  • The Unification of Germany involved:
    • The Second Schleswig War aka Prusso-Danish War Feb to October 1864
    • The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks’ War, June to July 1866
    • The Franco-Prussian War War, 19 July 1870 to 28 January 1871
  • The Unification of Italy involved:
    • The Second Italian War of Independence aka the Austro-Sardinian War, April to 12 July 1859
      (2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days)
    • The Third Italian War of Independence between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austrian Empire, June and August 1866
  • The Paraguayan War aka the War of the Triple Alliance, 1864 to 1870
  • The Third Carlist War, in Spain, 1872 to 1876

Famines

Less newsworthy than wars, less painted, less celebrated, producing fewer statues and medals, but many times more people died in famines than conflicts. As Hobsbawm points out, one of the fundamental differences between the ‘civilised world’ and the rest is that the industrial world can (by and large) feed its populations, whereas the undeveloped world is susceptible to failures of harvest and distribution.

  • 1848: Java ravaged by famine
  • 1849: maybe 14 million died in the Chinese famine
  • 1854 to 1864 as many as 20 million died in prolonged famine in China
  • 1856: one in ten of the population of Orissa died in the famine
  • 1861 to 1872: a fifth the population of Algeria died of starvation
  • 1868 to 1870: up to a third the population of Rajputana
  • 3 and a half million perished in Madras
  • 1871 to 1873: up to 2 million, a third the population of Persia, died of starvation
  • 1876 to 1878: 1 million in Mysore

Hobsbawm tries to reclaim human dignity i.e. give these catastrophes some semblance of meaning, by blaming some of this on the colonial powers (especially the British in India; as a British Marxist he is duty bound to reserve most of his scorn and contempt for the British authorities). But the effect of this list is not to make me ‘blame’ anyone, it just overwhelms me with the misery and suffering most of humanity have experienced throughout most of human history.

American states

In the post-civil war era, America continued to grow, adding states to its roster, having now settled the central issue of the war, which was whether they would be slave states of free states. The North’s victory in 1865 meant they would all be ‘free’ states.

  • Wisconsin became a state in 1848
  • California 1850
  • Minnesota 1858
  • Oregon 1859
  • Kansas 1861
  • West Virginia 1863
  • Nevada 1864
  • Nebraska 1867
  • Russia sold America Alaska 1867
  • Colorado 1876

Colonies

The original European colonial powers were Portugal and Spain. Spain lost control of its colonies in Central and South America in the early 1800s. Portugal hung on longer to a handful of territories in Latin America, a few coastal strips in Africa and Goa in India (p.145). The Dutch created a sizeable foreign empire in the 17th and 18th centuries. The French had ambitions to control North America and India but lost out during the 18th century to the British. So that the nineteenth century belonged to Britain, which ruled the world’s oceans and developed an unprecedented web of international, ocean-carried trade and this, Hobsbawm argues, was the bedrock reason for Britain pioneering the industrial revolution.

In a nutshell, the idea is that a fully developed capitalist system must be continually looking for new markets in order to maintain its growth. Where markets don’t exist in its native country, the system creates needs and markets through advertising. Or it conquers new parts of the world and new populations which it can drag into its mesh of trade and sales, extracting its raw materials at the cheapest cost, and turning them into manufactured items which it sells back to colonial peoples at the maximum profit.

Although there continued to be expeditions and territorial claims during this period, it was really a prelude to the frenzy of imperial conquest which characterised the final quarter of the nineteenth century, and which is the subject of the third book in the trilogy, the sequel to this one, Age of Empire.

In a word

Hobsbawm’s book impressed when it was published, and still does now, with its sheer range and scope, with its blizzard of facts and data, with its rhetorical conjuring of a world for the first time embraced and joined together by new technologies (railway, steamship, telegraph).

But its strength is its weakness, for its breadth means it sacrifices subtlety and insight for dogma, and becomes increasingly bogged down in sweeping generalisations about the wicked bourgeoisie and hypocritical capitalists (‘In general capitalists of the first generation were philistines…’, p.334).

By the end of the book I was sick to death of the sight of the word ‘bourgeois’. Hobsbawm sounds like a fairground toy: put a penny in the slot and watch it jerk to life and start spouting endless slogans about the vicious, hypocritical, exploitative ‘bourgeoisie’, especially in the long and profoundly dim final  sections of the book in which, God forgive us, an ageing Marxist historian shares with us his banal and  predictable views about the intellectual and artistic achievements of the period. For example:

  • The novel can be considered the one genre which found it possible to adapt itself to that bourgeois society….p.326
  • When one considers the orgy of building into which a prosperous bourgeois society threw itself…326
  • Few societies have cherished the works of creative genius… more than that of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. p.327
  • The demands of the bourgeoisie were individually more modest, collectively far greater. (p.330)
  • The business and domestic needs of the bourgeoisie made the fortunes of plenty of architects… (p.330)
  • The bourgeois market was new only insofar as it was now unusually large and increasingly prosperous. (p.330)
  • We can certainly discover those who, for various reasons, resisted or tried to shock a bourgeois public… (p.332)
  • For bourgeois society [the artist] represented ‘genius’…
  • Bourgeois tourists could now hardly avoid that endless and footsore pilgrimage to the shrines of the arts which is still in progress along the hard floors of the Louvre, Uffizi and San Marco. (p.335)
  • [Artists] did not have to conform to the mores of the normal bourgeois… (p.335)
  • Here again Richard Wagner showed a faultless appreciation of the bourgeois artist. (p.335)
  • Did the bourgeois actually enjoy the arts? (p.335)
  • Aestheticism did not become a bourgeois fashion until the late 1870s and 1880s. (p.336)
  • The bourgeoisie of the mid-nineteenth century was torn by a dilemma which its triumph made even more acute. (p.340)
  • At best the bourgeois version of ‘realism’ was a socially suitable selection… (p.340)
  • [Naturalism] normally implied a conscious political critique of bourgeois society… (p.340)
  • The insatiable demands of the bourgeoisie, and especially the petty-bourgeoisie, for cheap portraits provided the basis of [photography]’s success. (p.341)
  • Torn between the idealism and the realism of the bourgeois world, the realists also rejected photography… (p.342)
  • The Impressionists are important not for their popular subject matter – Sunday outings, popular dances, the townscapes and city scenes of cities, the theatres, race-courses and brothels of the bourgeois society’s half world – but for their innovation of method. (p.344)
  • If science was one basic value of bourgeois society, individualism and competition were others. (p.345)
  • [The birth of the avant-garde] represents the collapse of the attempt to produce an art intellectually consistent with (though often critical of) bourgeois society… (p.346)
  • This breakdown affected the marginal strata of the bourgeois world more than its central core: students and young intellectuals, aspiring writers and artists, the general boheme of those who refused to accept (however temporarily) to adopt the ways of bourgeois respectability… (p.347)
  • [French artists] were united, like the Romantics before 1848, only by a common dislike of the bourgeoisie… (p.348)
  • Until 1848 these spiritual Latin Quarters of bourgeois society had hope of a republic and social revolution…. (p.348)
  • Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869) is that story of the hope in the hearts of the world-storming young men of the 1840s and its double disappointment, by the 1848 revolution itself and by the subsequent era in which the bourgeoisie triumphed… (p.348)
  • With the collapse of the dream of 1848 and the victory of the reality of Second Empire France, Bismarckian Germany, Palmerstonian and Gladstonian Britain and the Italy of Victor Emmanuel, the western bourgeois arts starting with painting and poetry therefore bifurcated into those appealing to the mass public and those appealing to a self-defined minority. They were not quite as outlawed by bourgeois society as the mythological history of the avant-garde arts has it… (p.349)
  • [Music] could oppose the bourgeois world only from within, an easy task, since the bourgeois himself was unlikely to recognise when he was being criticised. (p.350)
  • Richard Wagner succeeded…in convincing the most financially solvent cultural authorities and members of the bourgeois public that they themselves belonged to the spiritual elite… (p.350)
  • Prose literature, and especially that characteristic art form of the bourgeois era, the novel, flourished for exactly the opposite reason. (p.350)
  • It would be unfair to confine the discussion of the arts in the age of bourgeois triumph to masters and masterpieces… (p.351)

Eventually, by dint of endless relentless repetition, the word ‘bourgeois’ becomes almost entirely emptied of meaning, and the endless conflating of everything bad, vicious, exploitative, hypocritical and philistine under this one mindless label eventually obliterates all Hobsbawm’s attempts to analyse and shed light. It does the opposite.

He nowhere makes clear that, since it is a French word implies, this venomous hatred of the ‘bourgeoisie’ had special French origins and significances in a politically unstable country which had a revolution more or less every generation throughout the century, which just weren’t the same and couldn’t be applied in the same way in Germany, Britain let alone America. Tennyson didn’t hate the English ‘bourgeoisie’, Dickens didn’t despise the English ‘bourgeoisie’, as much as their French counterparts, Baudelaire and Flaubert hated the French ‘bourgeoisie’. The hatred, the concept and the cultural context are all French and have never made nearly as much sense in Britain, let alone in America, as Marx learned to his bitter disappointment.

The passages describing the astonishing achievements of entrepreneurs, inventors, engineers and industrial innovators during this period remain thrilling and eye-opening, but they make up a minority of the text. Struggling through the long, doctrinaire Marxist and tediously banal second half is like being trapped in a corner of a party by a slobbering bore who asks you to hang on while he just tells you 20 more reasons why the Victorian bourgeoisie were so despicable. ‘Yes, grandad. I get it.’

The Age of Capital is arguably, in its overall tendency and rigidly doctrinaire interpretations, more a relic of its own time, the right-on, Marxisant 1970s, than a reliable guide to the era it claims to describe.

Ad hominem

On one occasion only have I been in a traditional London gentleman’s club, when a TV producer invited me to lunch at his club, the Garrick. He pointed out a few famous members in the packed dining room, including the distinctive features of the agèd and lanky Hobsbawm over at one of the tables.

It struck me how very English it was that this fire-breathing, ‘radical’, ‘Marxist’ historian enjoyed all the benefits of the English Establishment, membership of top clubs, numerous honours (Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and so on), enjoying a tasty lunch at the Garrick before strolling back to the library to pen another excoriating attack on the hypocrisy, philistinism, greed, ruthlessness and cruelty of the ancestors of the jolly chaps he’d just been sitting among, confident that his ‘bourgeois’ publishers would do a good job producing and promoting his next book, that the ‘bourgeois’ bookshops would display and sell it, that the ‘bourgeois’ press would give it glowing reviews, and he would be awarded another chestful of honours by a grateful monarch.

It’s not really even hypocrisy, it’s something odder: that academic communities across the Western world happily employed, paid and promoted humanities academics and writers who systematically castigated their employers, their nations and their histories, and cheerfully proclaimed their allegiance to foreign powers (the USSR, China) who made no secret of their intention to overthrow the West in violent revolution.

Well, history has had its revenge on the Marxist historians. As I slotted Age of Capital back onto my shelf I thought I heard the sound of distant laughter.


Credit

The Age of Capital: 1848 to 1875 by Eric Hobsbawm was published in 1975 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson. All references are to the 1985 Abacus paperback.

Hobsbawm reviews

Related reviews

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

The White Mountains by John Christopher (1965)

Twelve years and 28 novels into his career as a prolific author of science fiction and miscellaneous adult novels, Christopher’s publisher suggested he try writing novels for teenagers. I wonder if it had anything to do with the way one of his most recent novels, A Wrinkle In The Skin, rather movingly captures the close relationship between a man and an orphaned 11-year-old boy.

Anyway, the first fruit of this new direction in Christopher’s writing was The White Mountain, the first novel in what turned into a science fiction trilogy for teenagers, titled The Tripods.

The future

It is some time in the future and the mysterious tripods, metal hubs standing on three 60-foot-high legs, have conquered the earth. Humans have been reduced to serfs in a recreation of the medieval feudal system. There is no technology beyond carthorses and horse-drawn agriculture. Some people have travelled a bit and seen the ruins of the big cities which ‘the ancients’ lived in in the Old Times, but everyone is taught they were the Dark Times, the world was overpopulated, people starved and dropped like flies due to diseases. People don’t talk about it, or the ruins, or anything else controversial.

Children run free till they turn 14 at which age they are ‘capped’ – they are scooped up by a tripod, their head shaved and a metal device implanted in their skulls which neutralises any attempts to rebel. The day of a child’s capping is a feast day in their village amid much celebration: it means they officially become a man or woman, can do an adult’s work and get an adult’s pay.

The novel is told in the first person by 13-year-old Will Parker who lives in the village of Wherton (page 22). There are other boys his own age, some of whom he fights with (such as his bully cousin, Henry), some of whom are his best mates. One is Jack, another cousin, who has made a secret den in one of the ruins of the Old People outside the village. Jack drops a couple of hints about the Old Days and the Old People. The official story is all was darkness and chaos till the Tripods came, but Jack asks how, if that is true, the Old People could have made complex and impressive devices like the pocket watch from the Old Times, which Will’s father is so proud of?

Capping and a vagrant

But then Jack turns 14 and is himself capped. Will witnesses the big village feast and the moment Jack is snatched up by the long looping tentacles of a tripod and taken up inside its hemispherical ‘head’, reappearing half an hour later with his head shaved and what looks like a web of wires (the ‘darker metal tracery of the cap…like a spider’s web’) embedded under his scalp. There’s a big feast to celebrate Jack’s capping, hosted by the lord of the manor, Sir Geoffrey. Next time he gets Jack on his own, a few days later, Jack dismisses all his former talk about the Old Days as nonsense. The capping has eliminated his rebellious and sceptical spirit.

Sometimes the capping process goes wrong and the cappees become brain damaged, mentally unhinged. They are booted out of their own communities and wander the country and are called Vagrants. Each village has a Vagrant House where vagrants can stay for a while and be fed before moving on.

Around this time a vagrant appears bumbling round the village. Will gets into conversation with him. He quotes the Bible a lot and says his name is Ozymandias. Will finds him interesting and, even though his father tells him to stop hanging round the vagrant house, Will meets Ozymandias a few more times. At one of these meetings, Ozymandias reveals that he has not been capped at all. The vagrant tells him about free, uncapped men living in the White Mountains over the sea and far to the South (by which the reader imagines he must mean the Alps).

Ozymandias swears Will to secrecy then explains how he can make his way south to the port of Rumney (presumably a corruption of Romney, a former port on the Kent coast), find a ship across the sea captained by one Captain Curtis, and then head for the White Mountains. He takes out of a secret seam in his jacket a map which he gets Will to promise to hide.

Escape

All these revelations from Ozymandias have crystallised his sense of unease about his own future capping, especially when he saw what it did to his best friend, Jack i.e. stopped him from thinking.

So Will builds up a stash of food secreted a bit of a time, with a view to running away. But then disaster strikes. His cousin Henry’s mother dies. Henry comes to stay for a bit, which is OK, but then his mother announces it’s going to be permanent and the boys are going to share the same room.

Nonetheless, one dark night Will gets up, sneaks out of bed, puts his clothes on, slips out of the house and along to the den Jack used. He is getting his stash of food and equipment out when hears a voice behind him. Henry woke as he got up to leave and has followed him. They have a brief fight which Henry wins, ending up on top pinning Will down. But instead of turning him in… he wants to come too! Will can’t think of any alternative and so reluctantly agrees.

They set off and their journey south is described in detail. One night they hear someone riding towards them and run for it but Will falls twisting his ankle. They have to rest up in a ruined cottage. Waking to find his pack gone, Will thinks Henry has deserted him. But he soon turns up, with fresh food he’s pinched from a far, and it turns out he’d hidden the pack for safety. After three days hiding out, Will’s ankle has healed and they continue south.

Rumney

They come down into Rumney and find a likely sailors’ inn. But Will has barely bought a drink before he is seized by a yellow-bearded sailor who is about to press gang him, when (luckily) Captain Curtis arrives and takes Will and Henry off Yellowbeard’s hands.

The pair are quickly smuggled aboard Curtis’s ship, the Orion, where they have to hide as most of the crew are capped. Half way across the Channel there is an incident, where six tripods appear and careen and swish around the ship their long legs ending in floats, giving out long booming calls. They playfully raise big waves which threaten to overturn the ship. Captain Curtis explains they often do this, it appears to be for fun, some ships actually sink but that’s not the purpose.

They dock in a port in France and Captain Curtis rows them ashore in a dinghy then wishes them good luck. However they’ve hardly gone any distance down the road before doors open, men appear and they are seized. Turns out someone’s been vandalising local boats and the inhabitants think they’ve caught them red-handed.

Now Captain Curtis had emphasised that they were under no circumstances to talk, as this would instantly reveal them as foreigners. Refusing to talk, Will and Harry are thrown into the cellar of a tavern, not before they’ve glimpsed an odd-looking lanky boy with glass over his eyes. The reader realises that Will has never seen glasses before.

They make a few half-baked attempts to loosen the bars of the cellar but then the door is unlocked and opened. It is the lanky kid. He can speak English and offers to take them back to a boat. When they explain they are heading south, he says he can help with that, too. Why? It’s never really explained although he immediately warms to the idea of a place where there are no tripods and no capping.

He introduces himself as Zhan-pole which we realise is Will’s phonetic spelling of Zhan-pole. Henry immediately nicknames him Beanpole and it sticks. They set off south and Beanpole reveals that he also is fascinated by ‘the ancients’, reckons they were strong and powerful, reckons they had machines driven by power of steam. He reckons people could fly by building big balloons filled with steam not air. He read about sailors’ telescopes and found some discarded lenses from which he constructed his home-made spectacles. Henry ridicules these ideas but Will is fascinated.

Shmand-Fair

Beanpole says they can use the shmand-fair to travel south. Those of us with basic French realise he means the chemin de fer or railroad or railway. And sure enough he leads him to a place where long curving metal rails are supported on wooden sleeper, and box-like carriages are pulled by horses. They stow away on one of a set of carriages and are merrily pulled south by the horses for a full day, as the shmand-fair passes through villages and stops to have goods loaded or unloaded.

Towards evening they slip out unnoticed at a stop, then head steadily south-east towards what Will’s map indicates are the ruins of a great city.

Paris

They travel across Paris which is in ruins and utterly deserted. The main streets are pocked with trees and shrubs. There are cuboid rusting metal objects with metal wheels and white skeletons inside. Beanpole reckons they were vehicles which made their way under their own steam without horses.

They come across vast shops with mannekins in the windows. They find old, old tinned food. There’s steps going down underground beneath a rusted sign reading METRO. Down into dark tunnels which wind on and descend even further till they come to a Metro train, a row of carriages on the rails. Inside the carriage they find what are obviously old rifles and sacks of round things with corrugated surfaces. These are grenades. Beanpole pulls the pin out of one but the effort makes him drop it and it rolls under the carriage, which is just as well for all concerned – before it explodes. It dawns on all of them that this must have been a last hideout for men trying to resist the tripods. Everything Will sees reinforces his sense that his society is not natural; it is an imposition and a tyranny. They decide to put some of the ‘eggs’ in their packs.

They continue onto the Île de la Cité past Notre Dame de Paris, but the bridges on the other side are down so they have to retrace their steps till they find a damaged bridge which still has a full span. They trek across a massive Paris cemetery and finally emerge into country on the other side.

The Castle of the Red Tower

They head south for several days into what I suppose is the valley of the River Loire, famous for its castles. A fever has been creeping up on Will and he collapses into a feverish state. They hide him in a shed, but next thing he remembers is faces looking over him and then waking up…. in a wonderfully comfortable feather bed!

This is maybe the longest and central section of the book. They have been taken into The Castle of the Red Tower and its courteous aristocratic owners, Sir Geoffrey and Lady May and their daughter Eloise, along with umpteen knights and fine ladies and then a host of servants. It is part of their noblesse to help wayfarers, hence the hospitality they extend to these two foreigners and a gawky native.

The womenfolk take a shine to Will partly because their sons have been sent away on service. Lady May enjoys mothering him and Eloise likes talking to him in a sweet and soulful way. His two friends remain outside this magic circle. When they meet they discuss what to do and the idea recurs that the other two should go on ahead (they won’t be so missed) and Will catch them up.

Meanwhile the days turn into weeks, Will recovers and the family show him the full gamut of hospitality, favours and training. Will learns to speak French and to ride a horse well, well enough to go hunting. Will thinks he might be sort of falling in love with Eloise till one fateful incident. Eloise always wears a turban. One day, walking along the battlements of the castle, Will playfully pulls it off. This subtly wrecks their friendship for Will is shocked to see beneath her shorn skull, the tell-tale signs of a cap. He hadn’t realised she was that old. He hadn’t realised she was capped. He had been hoping somehow to take her along with them to freedom. Now that idea evaporates. For Eloise, Will pulling her turban off like that was rude, the act of a barbarian without manners. Ordinarily any man who did that to a recently capped young woman would be flogged.

Despite this Will is totally incorporated into the aristocratic lifestyle, visiting poor villagers to dispense charity, socialising with neighbouring wealthy families, and Lady May says she has influence with the king and can have Will formally granted the tank of gentleman. Of course, this would require being capped and giving up his ability to think freely. That is what this long central section dramatises: Will’s temptation to give in, to conform, to acquiesce in a life of ease and privilege – at the price of his mental freedom. Sure, all the people around him in the castle are capped, but they are happy.

Is it worth forfeiting the free life of the mind in exchange for security and happiness?

The castle is due to host a big tournament stretching over many days. It brings all these conflicts to a head. On the second day Henry and Beanpole come to see Will and announce they will be slipping away to continue their journey south under cover of the general confusion caused by the hundreds of knights and servants who have arrived for the tournament. Will promises he will follow them, in a day or two, a week at the latest. They look at him and imperceptibly shake their heads. Basically, they think he is lost to the cause and don’t expect to ever see him again. They walk away with their backpacks filled with food nicked from the castle kitchens, various tools and buried at the bottom, those hand grenades from Paris.

Back at the tournament, a young woman is always crowned Queen of the Tournament and to nobody’s surprise this year the Queen is young Eloise. Willis disconcerted when a huge tripod clumps up to the tournament grounds and parks itself, unmoving, monitoring everything. Will is convinced it is watching him.

That evening Eloise comes to see Will in his bedroom and is full of excitement. She says she’s come to say goodbye but Will doesn’t understand. Then she explains that whoever is crowned Queen of the Tournament is then sent away to serve the tripods. He is shocked not only at this news, but at the joyful look on her face. Any lingering fantasies he had about building some kind of future with her come tumbling down. That decides him.

In the middle of the night he gets up, dresses, takes a pillowslip down to the kitchen and fills it with cold food, slips over to the stables and saddles the chestnut gelding he’s been used to riding, named Aristide (page 134). He heads south on the horse with a view to catching up with Beanpole and Henry but then becomes aware of a powerful thumping sound. It is the tripod which had loomed over the tournament. Before he has time to bolt, the tripod’s long tentacle loops down and scoops him off the horse and up into the gaping hole which has appeared in its ‘head’.

He regains consciousness lying on the bank of the river with Aristide grazing quietly nearby. In a sudden panic Will reaches for his head and gasps with relief when he feels all his hair, still there, unshaven. He has not been capped. Dazed and confused he mounts up onto Aristide and hastens away: the castle will be waking up, they will come looking for him.

Three boys in flight

Later that day he sees two figures toiling up a field in the distance, canters over and it is Beanpole and Henry. He dismounts, spanks Aristide on the bottom so he’ll wander off to be found by locals. Now the three are reunited. The other two are surprised and Henry in particular drops barbed comments about Will abandoning his ‘life of luxury’ but Will makes it sound like all part of a carefully crafted plan instead of, what the reader has actually seen, a turmoil of confused impulses.

They have the map and head south aiming for a pass in the hills. There is a river and this is joined by another one which is dead straight and has locks when the level changes. None of them know about canals but, again Beanpole shows he is the intellectual by speculating that it was built to carry boats on and carry goods.

It is a long journey south. Days pass in endless tramping and detailed notes on the changing weather. They go hungry, eat what they can forage and occasionally burglarise a cottage pantry of some cooked food and have a feast.

Tailed by a tripod

However it soon becomes clear that they’re being trailed by a tripod. No matter where they go and whatever direction they take, after a while it (or one like it; they all look the same) hoves up behind them. The land slowly climbs, there are pastures of cows and goats and alpine valleys. Days pass. They become more and more tired and hungry. Soon they are tearing up roots, foraging for berries. Cold nights sleeping on the bare earth in pine forests. They discuss whether they could catch a snake and what it would taste like raw.

One morning Will is lying on his back with his torn shirt and Beanpole sees something. In his armpit is a circular shape. On closer examination they realise it is some kind of metal implant. Obviously a tracking device. Henry leaps to the conclusion that Will is a traitor who acquiesced in having the tracker implanted. They must knock him out and leave him. Beanpole points out that Will voluntarily told them about being scooped up by the tripod, but remembering nothing. As a solution Will says they must split up and he’ll make his own way to the mountain refuge. Yes, says Beanpole, but it will still track him there. OK, replies Will, he’ll head back north to decoy the tripods. But that way he will almost certainly end up being capped and the memory of being scooped up into the tripod’s innards makes him go pale with fear.

Beanpole says there’s only one way: to cut it out. And so Henry holds Will down, they give him a leather strap to bite on and Beanpole uses a knife they found in Paris to cut it out. It involves quite a bit of gouging and Will is in agony, but eventually it comes free, a coin-sized metal button. They throw it away and press on. But then they hear a terrible sound, a booming ululation across the hills – it is the hunting call of the tripods. They know what the boys have done, and they’re coming to get them.

Killing a tripod

The chase really is on now, as the three boys hurry up the exposed hillside hearing the thump of tripod feet behind them. There’s only one bit of cover, a copse of bushes so they head for those and throw themselves into the middle. Moments later the tripod is above them, ripping up bushes with its tentacles getting closer and closer. Suddenly they remember the ‘eggs’ (the grenades) they found in the Paris Metro.

As the tripod rips up the bushes Beanpole and Henry get to their feet, pull out pins and throw their grenades at the tripod’s leg. They both explode but leave the leg completely unharmed. Will gets ready to throw but next thing he knows is in mid-air as a tentacle has grabbed him and is lifting him towards the grim opening in the tripod hub. At the last minute he pulls the pin from his grenade and chucks it into the opening. A few seconds later there is a dull thump and the tentacle goes limp, relaxing back down to ground level, loose enough for Will to wriggle free. The three boys stare up at the tripod, leaning to one side and completely inanimate. They’ve killed it.

Hunted by tripods

They unleash a storm of angry tripods. As they run run run as quick as they can, uphill away from the dead one, they suddenly see a silhouette on a western hill, then another from another direction. They chop and change routes but realise more and more tripods are approaching. Where to hide, it’s all barren hillside, only heather. Eventually they spot a large rock by a stream. Periodic floods must have worn away a groove at its base. The three boys throw themselves down into this runnel, squeezing in, head to foot, hidden by the overhang of the rock. And there they lie hiding for all of one long night, all the next day and into dusk and the night of the next day, and then all of the next day after that till they are dizzy with dehydration and hunger.

When hours have passed without any tripod activity they eventually stumble out of the crevice, drink some water and head stumbling up the hillside. There follow more days and nights of complete exposure and hunger, struggling through wind and rain. Will’s wound festers and Beanpole has to cut out the infected part and then treat it with herbs he knows about.

We are nearly at the end of the story and this reader felt absolutely shattered. They come down out of the hills into a lovely plain with a vast lake. Maybe it’s meant to be Lake Geneva. They steal food from a farmhouse and sleep in the hay of a barn. Next day they’re making their way across open fields of crops when two tripods come up behind them at speed. At first they and the reader think it’s all over, but the tripods are playing some kind of elaborate game, tossing something gold and flashing between their intermingling tentacles and run straight over the three boys.

And beyond the lake, and beyond the hills on the other side, for the first time they see the outline of the mighty white mountains, the Alps, rising in the distance.

Sudden ending

And then the novel ends, very abruptly. There are no more gruelling descriptions of their endless starving trek, thank goodness. Instead the narrative jumps ahead to a point where their journey is complete. In barely a page and a half we learn that  to , with barely two pages the boys found their way unhindered up to the peaks of the Alps where they discovered that free men have carved a network of tunnels into the rock, where they live, and from which they are planning some day to re-emerge, to fight the tripods and take back the earth for a free humanity. THE END.

Christopher versus Wyndham

Comparisons are odious but it highlights their respective strengths and weaknesses to compare Christopher’s novels with John Wyndham’s. Basically, Wyndham’s are in a different league, for several reasons:

I think the most important is the lack of thinking in Christopher. Characters have a few thoughts and ideas, sort of. But Wyndham’s books are packed with ideas, with characters who spend most of their time pondering the situation, thinking things through, having long thoughtful conversations, arguing interpretations.

You can’t help thinking that the entire situation, the world conquered by aliens and humans effectively neutered, could have prompted a vastly more thought-provoking novel than Christopher’s. For example, Will’s conversion from being a totally obedient conformist to suddenly realising the tripods are evil and that he doesn’t want to be capped, happens very lightly and easily. I didn’t feel any dramatic tension or depth.

Similarly, there really was scope to have some very interesting thoughts in the Castle of the Red Tower section about whether human beings might not, in fact, be a lot better off being capped and obedient. The life the book describes actually seems a lot better than the life of the poor in our own day and age. What’s not to like? Will eventually rejects it with a few feeble sentences about wanting to be ‘free’. You know for a fact that John Wyndham would have spent pages working this through and presenting the choice in much more thought-provoking way.

And because Wyndham’s characters have much larger and more complex mental lives and psychological range, this means when they get scared you get scared too. His books are much more thrilling because you experience them in a much fuller, psychologically deeper way.

Instead what you get in Christopher is a relentless focus on physical slog. I say this because a lot of The White Mountains reads eerily similar to the majority of A Wrinkle In The Skin in that both are relentlessly detailed descriptions of long and gruelling journeys made on foot with not enough food and the characters sleeping in the open, battered by the elements of wind and rain and cold.

These journeys are told in an extremely simple, straightforward chronological order, one day following the next, followed by the next followed by the next, and after a while it feels like a series of weather forecasts, with characters endlessly noting the state of the sky, clouds or mist or rain or drizzle or fog and so on and so on.

Any kind of mental activity comes a very poor second to this exhausting focus on the physical. If you are in the target age range for this book, of maybe 11 or younger, and if you hadn’t read many science fiction stories, I think the book invokes powerful tropes, mixes up a number of interesting settings (abandoned Paris, a medieval castle complete with tournaments) and, in the final close pursuit by the tripods, probably conveys enough jeopardy to keep you gripped and thrilled.

But hopefully any teenager who read this good primer would then go on to read much better, deeper, more skilfully described and psychologically stretching science fiction novels, for example the stories of H.G. Wells, not least The War of The Worlds which the tripods so obviously rip off, or those of John Wyndham, which would represent an obvious step up in quality and depth.

Kindling wonder

I suppose one the major things to say in the book’s favour is that it ably creates a sense of wonder on all levels. Obviously all the details about the tripods and the capping and the hints about slave mines and the mysterious cities of the tripods are designed to spark your young teen awe. But there is another payoff from setting it in a future where people have been separated from the past and knowledge of the wider world which is that… the world seems a much larger, more mysterious and marvellous place than it in fact, shows itself to be to most adults. Vast storm-tossed oceans, enormous ruined cities, mysterious machines, puzzling lines of metal rails, eerily straight rivers… almost every element in the book is strange and mysterious, in a way that a novel dealing with the same topics set in the present would take for granted.

Setting the story in this imagined future where lots of human knowledge has been so completely lost has the effect of making the world appear strange and wonderful. Putting to one side the other two dominant themes – fear about the tripods and the sheer bone-aching exhaustion of the hungry trek – this sense of wonder and dazzlement at a world full of mysteries may be the lasting impression the book leaves on younger readers. Which would be a good thing.


Credit

The White Mountains by John Christopher was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1967. All references are to the 2017 Penguin paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I’ll tell myself a story, I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself…

Panic

In 1946 Beckett wrote four short prose pieces – The CalmativeThe ExpelledThe End and First Love – which announced the arrival of the post-war Beckett, fully formed in his half-comic nihilism and his bookish but spavined style, by turns surreal, literary, pedantic, coarse, but always afflicted by anxiety, obsessions, worries, panics.

Hence the title – in this piece in particular, the narrator unreels an almost stream-of-consciousness flood of half memories and blurred fantasy occurrences, telling anything, any narrative, any story, to keep the panic and the nothingness at bay.

Obsession with the body, its repetitive behaviour, its decay

His own body is the most important factor in any of these narrators’ stories, its decrepitude, decay, collapse, inability, frailty and so on.

But it’s to me this evening something has to happen, to my body as in myth and metamorphosis, this old body to which nothing ever happened, or so little, which never met with anything, loved anything, wished for anything, in its tarnished universe…

Amnesia and uncertainty

Beckett heroes can never remember the past, not completely, only fragments. After all, to remember it clearly would establish a framework and meaning to their lives and that’s exactly what the texts want to deprive them of. Hence all of them sound the same in the way they can only recall fragments.

Yes, this evening it has to be as in the story my father used to read to me, evening after evening, when I was small, and he had all his health, to calm me, evening after evening, year after year it seems to me this evening, which I don’t remember much about, except that it was the adventures of one Joe Breem, or Breen, the son of a lighthouse-keeper, a strong muscular lad of fifteen, those were the words, who swam for miles in the night, a knife between his teeth, after a shark, I forget why, out of sheer heroism…

do you remember, I only just…

And they’re never sure of anything – or, rather, they emphasise their uncertainty, at every opportunity, for the same reason, to create a fog of uncertainty around everything:

I say cathedral, it may not have been, I don’t know…

Suddenly I was descending a wide street, vaguely familiar, but in which I could never have set foot, in my lifetime…

It might have been three or four in the morning just as it might have been ten or eleven in the evening…

He said a time, I don’t remember which, a time that explained nothing, that’s all I remember, and did not calm me…

If it’s not a rude question, he said, how old are you? I don’t know, I said.

A permanent mental, perceptual and cognitive fog.

My mind panting after this and that and always flung back to where there was nothing…

The surreal

Surrealism was founded in the early 1920s partly as a response to the madness of the Great War. It was a dominant visual and literary mood of the 1930s, especially in France where Beckett settled, lived and wrote. Impossible and bizarre juxtapositions are presented deadpan, as (allegedly) happens in dreams. Beckett was of his time, combining surrealism with his own pessimism to create a kind of surrealistic nihilism in which the impossible and absurd is quietly accepted.

I don’t know when I died. It always seemed to me I died old, about ninety years old, and what years, and that my body bore it out, from head to foot. But this evening, alone in my icy bed, I have the feeling I’ll be older than the day, the night, when the sky with all its lights fell upon me, the same I had so often gazed on since my first stumblings on the distant earth. For I’m too frightened this evening to listen to myself rot, waiting for the great red lapses of the heart, the tearings at the caecal walls, and for the slow killings to finish in my skull, the assaults on unshakable pillars, the fornications with corpses.

Note the learned and scholarly terms deployed like sixpences in a Christmas pudding, nuggets of knowingness embedded in a text in which the patently ridiculous is calmly discussed as an everyday matter, in which the absurd is carefully weighed like apples at a greengrocer’s.

Is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.

No, I didn’t think it would be.

Sexual crudity

All four of these stories have suddenly graphic and crude references to sex. Sex erupts unexpectedly. Certainly not sensually. Maybe it erupts from the texts as it erupts in real life, rupturing the bourgeois tranquillity of everyday life with its animal crudity.

Are thighs much in your thoughts, he said, arses, cunts and environs? I didn’t follow. No more erections naturally, he said. Erections? I said. The penis, he said, you know what the penis is, there, between the legs. Ah that! I said. It thickens, lengthens, stiffens and rises, he said, does it not? I assented, though they were not the terms I would have used. That is what we call an erection, he said.

Note how the narrator is treated as an imbecile and greets all these revelations as a deeply mentally challenged person would. Note how Beckett enjoys using rude words, as he does in all the other stories, in MurphyWatt and Mercier and Camier – he loves to shock the bourgeoisie, in that childish way of the European avant-garde, as if the bourgeoisie didn’t long ago develop a liking for being shocked, in fact they want their money back if their artists don’t ‘shock’ them.

Mottos of pessimism

All I say cancels out, I’ll have said nothing.

I couldn’t get up at the first attempt, nor let us say at the second, and once up, propped against the wall, I wondered if I could go on…

The core and kernel of Waiting For Godot and all the rest of his plays, of his entire worldview, iterated again and again, are all present.

Die without too much pain, a little, that’s worth your while.

Into what nightmare thingness am I fallen?

How tell what remains? But it’s the end.

This kind of sentiment can be repeated indefinitely which is what, in effect, Beckett’s oeuvre amounts to.

To think that in a moment all will be said, all to do again…


Credit

The Calmative by Samuel Beckett was written in French in 1946 and published in Paris in 1954. It was translated into English by Beckett in 1967 and published – along with The ExpelledThe End and other shorter works, into a volume titled Stories and Texts for Nothing.

The ExpelledThe End and The Calmative were then collected, along with First Love, into a Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and Other Novellas, which is where I read them.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

Between the publication of Murphy in 1938 and this suite of short stories written in 1946, came the small matter of the Second World War. Beckett spent it in embattled France rather than in neutral Ireland. For some time he was involved in the French Resistance, doing enough to merit being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance after the war.

While in hiding from the Nazis in the south of France, Beckett worked on the manuscript of another novel, Watt, which finally saw the light of day in 1953. In 1946 he wrote the four very short novellas, more like short stories – First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End which in the 1950s were gathered into one volume.

First Love – the plot

First Love is a short narrative, told in the first person, more of a dramatic monologue than a story.

The narrator is mentally challenged, talking like a simpleton about his visits to his father’s grave, his fondness for hanging around in graveyards, his liking for the smell of the dead. He has a male adolescent’s fascination with the unpleasant aspects of the human body – its farts, arses and sticky foreskins.

There’s a passage where he ponders the different types of constipation and fondly imagines Jesus at stool, pulling his buttocks apart to help his stool descend.

To quote Leslie Fiedler, Beckett enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’, often in quite a childish way.

The other members of his father’s household never liked him, or barely tolerated him.

He reminds me a bit of Benjy the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, dimly trying to make sense of things which other people are always doing to him. – He remembers his father saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not disturbing anyone’ as if the other people in the house, who he refers to as ‘the pack’, think he should be… what? Taken away and put in a home? (As Murphy is, as Watt ends up.)

When his father died, they promptly kicked him out the house – more precisely locked his door and piled all his things up outside it. He left, wandering off into the great outside. He sleeps for successive nights on a bench by a canal until disturbed by Lulu, a prostitute.

(The pattern of a self-obsessed man being interrupted, disturbed from his self-absorption by a woman recurs in most of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, and in Murphy where the solipsistic protagonist is also troubled by the attentions of a streetwalker, Celia. Men are useless solipsists until rescued by a practical woman is one way of interpreting this common narrative structure.)

After a few night-time encounters with Lulu, the narrator goes off to find shelter in a barn in the country, rather absurdly reduced to writing out Lulu’s name in cow pats.

He returns to the city and allows himself to be taken to her small apartment where, with the obsessive-compulsive behaviour typical of a Beckett figure, he empties the room he’s given of every scrap of furniture, piling it all in the hall outside.

He hears Lulu – who he has renamed Anna – having sex with clients in the other room. I think the narrator and Lulu have sex a few times, though it’s hard to tell.

Lulu-Anna gets pregnant. She strips and shows him her belly and breasts swelling. The protagonist realises he must leave. One night he hears the baby being born, the screams and the cries. He gets dressed quietly, exits the house, but wherever he goes he still hears the baby crying.

Not a conventional romance, is it?

The style

What the war, or something, has done to Beckett’s prose is to transform it. Most obviously, almost all the arcane and deliberately obscure words he clotted the earlier books with have vanished. Almost. There are a few regressions.

Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not. For had my love been of this kind would I have stooped to inscribe the letters of Anna in time’s forgotten cowplats? To divellicate urtica plenis manibus?

‘Divellicate’ meaning ‘to tear apart or off’ and urtica plenis manibus meaning ‘handfuls of nettles’. Nothing profound here; the ‘joke’ here, as in so much Beckett, is in the elaborate over-telling of a humorously mundane action.

A handful of really obscure phrases aside, the prose is, by and large, much less racked and clotted than in the earlier books. That said, the majority of the text is still ornate, mock academic, falsely pedantic and orotund in tone.

As to whether it was beautiful, the face, or had once been beautiful, or could con­ceivably become beautiful, I confess I could form no opinion.

‘I confess’ – the tone of the ancient clubman over whiskey and soda, or the Oxford professor over sherry. This tone of arch contrivance predominates throughout. But in amidst it are all kinds of other registers. Most enjoyable, on its occasional appearances, is the register of poetic prose.

When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the fairly recurrent tone of schoolboy crudity.

The smell of corpses, distinctly per­ceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find un­pleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how in­finitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.

Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

I considered kicking her in the cunt.

These are examples of what Fiedler called Beckett’s bourgeois-baiting, but also, maybe, a crudity, an aggressiveness, which can be interpreted as part of the character’s mental disturbance, his lack of socialisation.

There is still the minute, the obsessive description of mundane physical activities which hamper all Beckett’s characters. Having piled all the furniture in the hall, he’s made it difficult to get in or out of his room, and thus difficult to get to the toilet (which we know he needs despite his sometimes heroic constipation he mentions right at the start).

Te remedy the getting-to-the-toilet issue, he and Anna decide a chamber pot will be necessary. But Anna does not possess a chamber pot. Oh dear. And so they discuss the options in mind-numbing detail – the obsessive triviality – and the sordid subject matter – being the point. Oh woe is mucky material man.

Give me a chamber-pot, I said. But she did not possess one. I have a close-stool of sorts, she said. I saw the grandmother on it, sitting up very stiff and grand, having just purchased it, pardon, picked it up, at a charity sale, or perhaps won it in a raffle, a period piece, and now trying it out, doing her best rather, almost wishing some­one could see her. That’s the idea, procrastinate. Any old recipient, I said, I don’t have the flux. She came back with a kind of saucepan, not a true saucepan for it had no handle, it was oval in shape with two lugs and a lid. My stewpan, she said. I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had said I needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?

‘Recipient’ presumably used in the sense of ‘recipient of my poo and pee’ – any receptacle. And ‘the flux’ is an archaic term for what we nowadays call dysentery – carefully combining the turdy reality of human existence with arcane historical terminology – a classic Beckett manoeuvre!

Learnèd wit

All this can be seen as part of Beckett’s deployment of ‘learned wit’. 65 years ago Professor D. W. Jefferson wrote a classic essay explaining, categorising and defining the long literary tradition of ‘learned wit’ – the type of humour which takes the mickey out of academic knowledge by exaggerating it to grotesque proportions.

This is a long tradition of this approach and style, dating from the classical world which runs strong through medieval, Renaissance and 18th century literature.

It seems to me Beckett is firmly in this line of smart-arse, show-off humour, taking the mickey out of its own erudition.

One element of it is dressing up the crudest physical bodily functions in elaborately academic periphrasis, littered with learned references and classical quotations. (The great example of this in Western literature is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-1560) by François Rabelais, describing the gross adventures of the two giants of the title in a comically pedantic style. In English probably the greatest example is the experimental comic novel, Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne.)

So Beckett’s obsession with farting, pissing and pooing in Latin or 16th century vocabulary is slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

As is another element, the making of long, pedantic lists out of all proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. Thus, for example, the narrator doesn’t just complain about his pains, but goes on to sketch out a theory of his pains, and draw up a deliberately ridiculous list:

I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving method­ically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.

And this quote also demonstrates that long-windedness can be comic (in intent, anyway) – although in Beckett, over-long sentences oscillate between being humorous and becoming the unchecked logorrhoea of the mentally disturbed. Or both at once. You can never be sure.

Mentally challenged or hyper-intellectual?

This raises the issue that, although the narrator lives in squalor, can’t remember his name or things that have happened to him, has a brain-damaged fixation with his own body and an autistic inability to communicate with others – nonetheless, all this is conveyed in an incredibly ornate, articulate, intellectual and educated register. It is precise and finicky, regularly using a tone of academic detachment and pedantic precision.

It is this unlikely clash or dichotomy which produces the peculiar effect of Beckett’s prose – the feelings of an autistic savant expressed in the language of a scholar.

Yes, there are moments, particularly in the afternoon, when I go all syncretist, à la Reinhold. What equilibrium! But even them, my pains, I understand ill. That must come from my not being all pain and nothing else. There’s the rub. Then they recede, or I, till they fill me with amaze and wonder, seen from a better planet. Not often, but I ask no more. Catch-cony life! To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent!

The thoughts of a simpleton couched in the terminology of an Oxford professor.

Poetic

And then there’s another, mostly buried, aspect. Amid all the other tones and registers, just occasionally a poetic voice peeks out and hints at a completely new direction out of the mire of obfuscation, the bleak way of the lost and forlorn. Sometimes, in fact fairly regularly, there are phrases which are neither nihilistic, ridiculous or disgusting, but haunting and touching. There are quite a few moments which, despite the clammy negativity, actually emerge as sweet and doleful.

Thus, right at the end of the text, the speaker is haunted by the cries of Anna’s newborn who is in fact his own son, despite the fact that he has abandoned them both and is walking away as fast and as far as he can.

As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease.

Not ‘a cry is a cry’, but ‘cry is cry’, making it sound more elemental, profound, harrowing.

To be cynical, this kind of rhetorical twist, this sudden incursion of a portentous tone, will be Beckett’s schtick for decades to come. But, if you are not repelled by the subject matter, if you put yourself mentally in a place where you accept the incongruity of a simpleton who talks like an antiquated Cambridge professor, if you accept the lying in cow pats and the autistic behaviour and the deliberately vague sense of other people, the drift and the decay – then there are regularly moments when the prose achieves a kind of epiphany of sadness, a rather hard-faced poetics of desolation.

These four short texts are weirdly compelling. I read all of them twice.


Credit

First Love by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was first published in 1976. Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Watt by Samuel Beckett (1953)

‘If I tell you all this in such detail, the reason is, believe me, that I cannot, much as I should like, and for reasons that I shall not go into, for they are unknown to me, do otherwise.’
(Arthur, in part three of Watt)

It’s a challenge, but I came to really enjoy this book.

Watt was Samuel Beckett’s second published novel in English (the first being Murphy, published 1938). It was begun in 1941 but largely written while Beckett was hiding from the Nazis in a small French town in the Vaucluse in south-east France, and completed in December 1944. He revised and rewrote it as he went, experimenting not only with plot and style, but with structure and tone and, indeed, the entire conception of what a fiction is and can be.

It wasn’t published until a long time later, in 1953, and then only by the Olympia Press in Paris, a disresreputable publisher of pornography whose owner prided himself on publishing unpublishable literary masterpieces (he also published novels by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Miller). (Publishing with Olympia established Beckett’s copyright and helped him to negotiate with English and American publishers).

Fragments

In later life Beckett dismissed the book as ‘a game, a means of keeping sane’, as ‘an exercise’ to stave off the long evenings hidden away in a French farmhouse. Its long and claustrophobic gestation possibly accounts for the complex mess of the manuscript which contains all sorts of loose leaves, doodles, fragments of plot. It was, Beckett told George Reavey in 1947, ‘an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs’. After the war Beckett carried this ever-evolving mess with him, to Paris and then back to Dublin, working over and through to a final version of the book. Four excerpts were published in literary magazines between 1950 and 1953.

The patchwork assembly of the text is recognised in the series of ‘addenda’, 37 fragments which he added at the end of the main text, concepts, sentences, scenes and phrase apparently intended for the novel but not used. Or used to form intriguing and suggestive ‘addenda’.

The general approach

Watt is another of Beckett’s tramps-cum-simpletons-cum alzheimer victims. Some kind of autistic, he struggles to fathom the most basic human interactions.

Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done. And it was true that Watt’s smile, when he smiled, resembled more a smile than a sneer, for example, or a yawn. But there was something wanting to Watt’s smile, some little thing was lacking, and people who saw it for the first time, and most people who saw it saw it for the first time, were sometimes in doubt as to what expression exactly was intended. To many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth.
Watt used this smile sparingly.

Mind you, neither can the narrator or Beckett. All Beckett’s fictions come from a very similar place and depict people who can barely speak or communicate, who don’t understand basic human interactions, who are at the threshold of ordinary human behaviour, who can barely walk let alone speak, who fall, crawl, pull themselves forward by clutching tufts of grass through the mud of this world, obsessively repeating endless repeated phrases of endless repetition.

That, at least, is the enormously powerful impression you get from The Beckett Trilogy. The text of Watt, however, had not yet gone as far in that direction, although it has gone a long way in a very weird direction.

Paragraphs For a start the text is cast in paragraphs, lots of paragraphs, often fairly short. This may sound a trivial thing but Molloy starts with 80 pages of uninterrupted unrelieved prose, a Berlin Wall of prose, with no paragraphs or breaks of any kind, which turns out to be a real struggle to read.

Having your text chopped up into the conventional format of paragraphs which indicate when a new character speaks, or when a new action or topic starts and ends, is a vastly useful visual convention of typography – you only realise just how powerful and useful it is when it is completely absent in a work like Molloy. So Watt may use disorientating techniques but it feels much easier to read than the Trilogy.

To give an example, the conversation between Mr Hackett the hunchback, Mr Nixon and his wife Tetty, may well have surreal aspects – such as Tetty’s anecdote about giving birth by herself in the middle of a dinner party – but it is told in the format of paragraphs clearly indicating who is speaking when, and noting when characters change position or pause a bit – and so the texture of the reading experience is overwhelmingly traditional.

No speech marks Right at the start of his career, back in 1904 or so, Beckett’s mentor James Joyce had decided never to use speech marks or inverted apostrophes in his fiction and Beckett follows him in this mannerism. But it is a fairly easy-to-assimilate convention and you quickly get used to spotting what is dialogue and what is descriptive prose.

Conventional vocabulary Since we’ve mentioned Joyce, another thing worth pointing out is the utter conventionality of Beckett’s lexicon. He uses traditional words in a generally traditional way, nowhere is there a trace of the wild experiments with the English language which Joyce took to giddy heights in Ulysses and then burst all bounds in Finnegans Wake.

It also marks a distinct shift from the lexicon of More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) which both indulged in the extreme complexification of the prose via orotund and arcane argots and terminologies. Here he is describing a character called ‘the Frica’ in the Dream:

A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic…

Beckett’s prose in Watt has undergone a thorough detoxification. Trace of the spastic pedantry of the previous texts still survives, but with nothing like the same intensity:

He had seen all from his warm nest of books and periodicals. But now that the best was past he came out on the platform, with the intention of closing his stall, for the night. He therefore lowered and locked the corrugated apron. He seemed a man of more than usual acerbity, and to suffer from unremitting mental, moral and perhaps even physical pain. One noticed his cap, perhaps because of the snowwhite forehead and damp black curly hair on which it sat. The eye came always in the end to the scowling mouth and from there on up to the rest. His moustache, handsome in itself, was for obscure reasons unimportant. But one thought of him as the man who, among other things, never left off his cap, a plain blue cloth cap, with a peak and knob. For he never left off his bicycle-clips either. These were of a kind that caused his trouser-ends to stick out wide, on either side. He was short and limped dreadfully. When he got started he moved rapidly, in a series of aborted genuflexions.

There isn’t the same fol-de-rol of recherche terminology. But there is still the fundamental attitude, the satirical deployment of an over-learnèd diction to a banal subject – ‘a series of aborted genuflexions’.

Beckett’s pedantic stage directions It is drily comic. It is droll, maybe, like clever undergraduates using over-elaborate language to impress each other with the absurdity of their erudition. This taste for the sly humour of extreme pedantry remained one of Beckett’s core qualities. An often overlooked aspect of his plays is the way the stage directions became things of extreme precision, which are both deadly serious and comic at the same time, like the precise nature of the bowler hats worn in Waiting For Godot. Indeed, some of the plays are entirely wordless, consisting solely of directions for actions the actors must perform and so are closer to mime or choreography. Any reader of the later plays gets used to the way the stage directions are often longer, more detailed and hyper-precise than the language involved in a production (if any).

So your response to Watt will depend on whether you enjoy, whether you find humour in the application of finicky, over-philosophical, over-learnèd and extended meditations on trivial everyday events.

In the opening scene Mr Hackett the hunchback and Mrs and Mrs Nixon spend four pages speculating why Watt got off the tram at the stop just opposite the bench where they are sitting. They work through all the potential reasons for his alighting just there with the scrupulous thoroughness of the medieval scholastic philosophers to whom Beckett owes a large debt.

Watt gets into a compartment of a train. He thinks it is empty but then realises a man is sitting in it (in a classic example Beckett-the-narrator playing with the conventions of what is, and what is not, implied by sentences in fiction. You write one thing, the reader understands the situation to be just so. You write another thing which flatly contradicts the first thing, and the reader realises just how slippery and imprecise language is, or how slippery the narrator is, or the text. Or perception. Or consciousness itself).

My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Here then was a sensible man at last. He began with the essential and then, working on, would deal with the less important matters, one after the other, in an orderly way.

The scholastic method of generating content Watt’s asperger’s syndrome-like obsessiveness is central to Becket’s method, and echoes or consciously revives, the medieval scholastic obsession with categorising all possible eventualities of an occurrence, or working systematically through every possible attribute of an entity. It is absolutely no surprise at all that the man in the train compartment, Spiro, turns out to be the editor of a Catholic journal (named Crux) which delights in setting elaborate brainteasers based on obscure areas of Christian theology, one of which he proceeds to share with Watt:

A rat, or other small animal, eats of a consecrated wafer.
1) Does he ingest the Real Body, or does he not?
2) If he does not, what has become of it?
3) If he does, what is to be done with him?

The thing about this kind of scholastic, super-categorising, hair-splittingly logical approach to trivialities is that it can generate endless text out of next to nothing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin was a question that could trigger medieval schoolmen to hours of learned debate, bringing in huge amounts of learning about angels, their bodies corporeal or non-corporeal, their abilities to change shape and size, and so on. Questions like this were set in medieval university exams not because anyone wanted to know the answer, but so the candidates could display their command of the gigantic schemas of categories and entities and types.

This is one way of looking at Beckett – as a kind of machine who generated huge amounts of prose (in his novels) by deploying mechanistic and scholastic methodologies to absolute trivia. In More Pricks Than Kicks Beckett devotes a page to the complex methodology Belacqua Shuah employs to make two pieces of toast. In Molloy he spends an entire page enumerating the method Molloy develops for sucking 16 pebbles he has collected from the seashore and stores in his four pockets, so that he sucks them each in turn, while transferring them between pockets in a fair and just way.

Given this technique for generating prose, there doesn’t need to be any plot at all, no storyline in the traditional sense, and little sense or purpose to the narrative, for the text nonetheless to ramify out in all directions till it fills 200 pages of paragraph-less prose, and reading it makes you feel like you’re having a nervous breakdown.

Watt heard nothing of this, because of other voices, singing, crying, stating, murmuring, things unintelligible, in his ear. With these, if he was not familiar, he was not unfamiliar either. So he was not alarmed, unduly. Now these voices, sometimes they sang only, and sometimes they cried only, and sometimes they stated only, and sometimes they murmured only, and sometimes they sang and cried, and sometimes they sang and stated, and sometimes they sang and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated, and sometimes they cried and murmured, and sometimes they stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated, and sometimes they sang and cried and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated and murmured, all together, at the same time, as now, to mention only these four kinds of voices, for there were others.

See? Once you establish this method, you can apply it to anything, in fact the more trivial and silly the better, since it brings out the absurdity of the procedure and, by extension, the absurdity of trying to describe anything at all, the absurdity of writing fiction, the absurdity of being human.

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in a straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not. No knees could better bend than Watt’s, when they chose, there was nothing the matter with Watt’s knees, as may appear. But when out walking they did not bend, for some obscure reason. Notwithstanding this, the feet fell, heel and sole together, flat upon the ground, and left it, for the air’s uncharted ways, with manifest repugnancy. The arms were content to dangle, in perfect equipendency.

Forever and ever this kind of thing can be spooled out like a spider spins webs all its life long.

Use an Irish accent If you read it in a traditional English voice, like mine, it can get quite tiresome. Which is why you should have a go at reading it aloud with a slight Irish accent. If you do this, or hear it with your mind’s ear read in an Irish accent, you can catch the sly humour behind the entire thing and make out the very dry twinkle in old Sam Beckett’s beady eyes.

And you can see why, after exhausting the possibilities of prose in the enormous trilogy, he discovered the far more potent effect of doing this kind of thing onstage, of having actors read his prose out loud. Not only read out his mechanical variations on trivial actions, but actually have them act them out. Thus he gets the puppet characters of Godot or Happy Days or Endgame to go through obsessive physical and verbal repetitions which reduce the idea of human agency to an absolute null. And yet… with a shrewd, beady, half-smile hovering around his dry lips…

(This playful disinterest in plot, and greater interest in the games implicit in language, the silliness of set phrases and so on, is a quality shared with another bleak joker, Kurt Vonnegut. When Beckett describes Watt’s walk as ‘a funambulistic stagger’ the phrase reminded me of the made-up ‘chrono-synclastic infundibula’ which plays a central role in Vonnegut’s first novel The Sirens of Titan.)

The plot

Watt has four parts.

Part one

‘Hunchy’ Hackett sits on what he considers ‘his’ bench. He is joined by Mr and Mrs Nixon who, among other things, tell the story of how she gave birth in the middle of a posh dinner party (she went upstairs and delivered the baby herself before coming back down, leading the child by the hand). Night is falling. They observe someone alight from a stopping tram and identify him as Watt. There is a typically scholastic debate about why he chose this particular tram stop.

Cut to Watt hurrying to the train station and colliding with a man pushing a big milk churn. He picks it up along with Watt’s hat, the whole incident observed by the elderly keeper of the newsagent’s booth, who now closes it up. Watt enters the train in what he thinks is an empty compartment but then realises it has an occupant, who introduces himself as Spiro, editor of a Catholic popular magazine, Crux.

Watt alights (apparently) and walks along a road. His method of walking is described with characteristic obsessive pedantry. It once impressed a Lady McCann who observed his odd method of ambulation. He is tired. He lies down in a ditch (an image of utter dejection which was to be obsessively repeated in the falling, crawling, creeping protagonists of the Trilogy).

He hears a choir singing a song and, in that 1930s avant-garde way, the text includes a two-page transcription of it. Watt bestirs himself, picks up his bags and continues to the house of a Mr Knott, where we have a typical piece of obsessively repetitive Beckettiana:

The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked still, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

See what I mean by the technique which can spool an infinite amount of prose, of ratiocination, out of almost nothing. Every human action can be subjected to a) this degree of mindless mechanical repetition and b) unnecessarily thorough pedantic over-analysis. Either you find it irksome or, you adjust your mood to suit Beckett’s approach and find it dryly humorous, absurd, absurdist.

Watt enters the apparently empty house and sits in the kitchen by the ‘range’, taking off his hat, revealing his grey-red hair. A man enters and delivers a breathless, surreal and absurdist monologue of the kind which will dominate the Trilogy. It is really a very long monologue, 25 pages of the kind of solid block prose we will see in the Trilogy and the demented, repetitive, obscure, mad obsessive dwelling on trivial or inconsequential subject matter which characterises all Beckett’s prose.

In terms of ‘facts’, what emerges is the speaker is Arsene, the owner of the house’s former manservant, along with one Erskine and two serving girls, Ann and Mary.

Part two

The narrating voice settles into a series of philosophical meditations on the nature of reality, of our experience of the outer and inner worlds and the difference between them, the nature of time and of mind.

For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance.

These lengthy and repetitive lucubrations centre on a number of characteristically minor or trivial events, such as the visit to the house of the Galls, a father and son pair of piano tuners. Then there is the case of the pot, which gives rise to a long excursus on the nature of pot-ness.

Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr Knott’s pots, of one of Mr Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if the approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished.

It’s passages like this – and this is only a small excerpt from the long passage about the pot – that bespeak a kind of mental illness, that lead me to make the comparisons with an autistic or asperger-like inability to relate to the world, to be thrown into anxiety, into panic, by nothing, by looking at a pot.

There is a master of the house, one Mr Knott, whose names seems as much of a joke as Watt’s. Watt is Knott. Watt is not Knott. Knott is not Watt. We could go on all day, and Beckett does. The obsessive manner of Watt knocking on the front door when he first arrives, then going round to knock on the back door, then returning to the front to knock on the front door again, then returning to the back to knock on the back door again, are a fleabite compared to some of the monstrosities of obsessive repetition, or repetitions with variations, the text contains.

Watt prepares Mr Knott’s meals by mixing up a precise list of ingredients and medicines into a sort of gruel which must be served punctually at 12 noon and 7pm. Sometimes Mr Knott leaves the bowl empty, at other times leaves varying percentages of the gruel in it.

Twelve possibilities occurred to Watt, in this connection:

  1. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  2. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  3. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  4. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  5. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  6. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  7. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  8. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  9. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  10. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  11. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  12. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.

All these passages say something about the madness of thinking, the madness of writing, and the madness of language. The anxiety about Knott’s dinner develops seamlessly into an even more elaborated worry about the dog Watt is ordered to give any leftovers of Mr Knott’s dinner to, worries whether such a dog might or might not exist, and then a detailed consideration of four possible permutations by which such a dog might be prevailed upon to eat the leftovers. Which leads into a consideration of the family which is required to manage the complex system of dogs which have been conjured up to eat Mr Knott’s leftovers, and who are named the Lynch family and who Beckett proceeds to list and describe at exorbitant length, 28 of them in total. When Liz, the wife of Sam, dies shortly after giving birth to her twentieth baby:

This loss was a great loss to the family Lynch, this loss of a woman of forty goodlooking years.
For not only was a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, an aunt, a sister, a sister-in-law, a cousin, a niece-in-law, a niece, a niece-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter-in-law and of course a grandmother, snatched from her grandfather-in-law, her father-in-law, her uncles-in-law, her aunt, her aunts-in-law, her cousins, her brothers-in-law, her sisters, her niece, her nephew, her sons-in-law, her daughters, her sons, her husband and of course her four little grandchildren (who however exhibited no sign of emotion other than that of curiosity, being too young no doubt to realise the dreadful thing that had happened, for their total age amounted to no more than sixteen years), never to return, but the Lynch millennium was retarded by almost one year and a half, assuming that during that time all were spared, and so could not be expected before roughly two years from the date of Liz’s departure, instead of in a mere five months time, as would have been the case if Liz together with the rest of the family had been spared, and even five or six days sooner if the infant had been spared also, as he was to be sure, but at his mother’s expense, with the result that the goal towards which the whole family was striving receded to the tune of a good nineteen months, if not more, assuming all the others to be spared, in the meantime.

As you read this sort of thing, it’s hard not to think of Beckett’s own description that he wrote the book as an exercise, as experiments in dribs and drabs, on the long long nights hidden away in a house in the Vaucluse, with a pen, some notebooks and far too much time on his hands.

We are now in the clutches of the Lynch family and their absurd wish that the total of their combined ages reaches a thousand, something which keeps being prevented when one or other of them dies unexpectedly. Meanwhile one of the uglier cousins has twins. Which leads into an extended consideration of who impregnated her which requires a long, detailed description of the fornicatory habits of all the male members of family (cousin Sam in his wheelchair, cousin Tom with his manic depression, Uncle Jack…?)

After pages about the Lynch family, we revert to Watt, during his era of service on the ground floor, and a further disquisition about the name and nature of the dog the two members of the Lynch family, the dwarves Art and Con (remember the hunchback Mr Hackett at the start of the ‘story’), are tasked with bringing to the door of Mr Knott’s house every evening at 9pm to receive whatever leftover there may be. Or not. The dog is called Kate and we have it fully explained which Lynch family member she is named after. Kate dies and is replaced by another dog named Cis.

Eventually the book gets beyond the complex issue of the dig which eats Mr Knott’s leftovers and settles on the even more vexed matter of why the other servant in the house, Erskine, seems to spend so much of his time running up and down stairs from the ground floor to the first floor to the second floor and back down again, presumably at Mr Knott’s command, whereas Watt, at least in the first phase of his employment, remains on the ground floor throughout his working day. The possible reasons why are given the Beckett treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason.

Then there is the bell which goes off anytime day or night to summon Erskine to Mr Knott’s room. Same kind of treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason, including a list of every possible part of the human anatomy which could be used to press a bell. Watt decides he needs to discover the layout of Erskine’s room and in particular the location of the bell. But:

Erskine’s room was always locked, and the key in Erskine’s pocket. Or rather, Erskine’s room was never unlocked, nor the key out of Erskine’s pocket, longer than two or three seconds at a stretch, which was the time that Erskine took to take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the outside, glide into his room, lock his door again on the inside and slip the key back into his pocket, or take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the inside, glide out of his room, lock the door again on the outside and slip the key back into his pocket. For if Erskine’s room had been always locked, and the key always in Erskine’s pocket, then Erskine himself, for all his agility, would have been hard set to glide in and out of his room, in the way he did, unless he had glided in and out by the window, or the chimney. But in and out by the window he could not have glided, without breaking his neck, nor in and out by the chimney, without being crushed to death. And this was true also of Watt.

Abruptly a first-person narrator enters the text who informs us that everything written so far was told him by Watt many years later and over the course of many years, and that he took it all down in his notebook. Which gives rise to extensive, repetitive and thorough reflections on epistemology and the limits of knowledge, specially when it comes to narratives.

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what I know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, it could be shown that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because someone told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me.

We don’t know his name and the text moves back to the issue of Watt breaking into Erskine’s bedroom where he discovers a mysterious geometric painting hanging on the wall which gives rise to a very deep meditation on the nature of perspective and space and time and experience within it.

Time passes and Watt wonders how long he will be serving on the ground floor, how long his predecessors did, was it service of fixed duration, or did it vary from servant to servant?

For the service to be considered was not the service of one servant, but of two servants, and even of three servants, and even of an infinity of servants, of whom the first could not out till the second up, nor the second up till the third in, nor the third in till the first out, nor the first out till the third in, nor the third in till the second up, nor the second up till the first out, every going, every being, every coming consisting with a being and a coming, a coming and a going, a going and a being, nay with all the beings and all the comings, with all the comings and all the goings, with all the goings and all the beings, of all the servants that had ever served Mr Knott, of all the servants that ever would serve Mr Knott.

Repetition with variations. Obsessive repetition of the variations of a small number of variables, like the stones Molloy sucks or the toast that Belacqua Shuah methodically burns. The passage about the possible permutations of the servants goes on for four densely-written pages. Then he remembers lying on a beach at night and hearing three frogs who croak, respectively, Krak!, Krek! and Krik! at precise numerical intervals, such that the next two pages contain a table enumerating the froggy croaks.

Which leads into a memory of Watt’s sort-of affair with Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who came round to his house every Thursday evening. Sometimes she sat on his lap, sometimes he sat on hers, which immediately sparks two pages describing all the possible permutations of lap-sitting, along with a calculation of how long it took to change position, with the additional complexity of the time required to kiss or simply clasp each other, leading into ever-more complex calculations and permutations.

Mr Graves the old gardener comes regularly to the back door. Watt brings him a cup of tea in the morning or a bottle of stout in the evening.

Watt literally bumps into Mr Knott once when the owner is staring at a daisy and a worm at his feet. They do not speak. At numerous other times he glimpses the mysterious owner through windows, which often distort his appearance so he appears sometimes tall, sometimes short, sometimes stout, sometimes thin.

Watt realises he is tired and bored, service on the ground floor has tired him out. Then one fine winter morning he comes downstairs to find a new man in the kitchen, named Arthur. And on that word part two terminates.

Part three

Is narrated by a person called Sam but his narrative voice is identical to all that came before:

Watt seldom left his mansion and I seldom left mine. And when the kind of weather we liked did induce us to leave our mansions, and go out into the garden, it did not always do so at the same time. For the kind of weather that I liked, while resembling the kind of weather that Watt liked, had certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had not, and lacked certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had.

It appears they are both in an institution whose halls are crowded with what the narrator calls ‘scum’, playing ball all the time. The reference to mansions appears to be ironic. Watt appears to have ended up in a lunatic asylum, as does Murphy in his book. It is the logical place for all Beckett protagonists to end up since they are clearly suffering from advanced mental illness and inability to cope with everyday experience or any human interaction.

Watt and the protagonist are in some kind of institution, they can wander freely in separate gardens, divided by barbed wire fences. This is the most genuinely surreal. The narrator discovers a hole in his fence which parallels a hole in Watt’s fence and crawls through to him, watches him advance backwards towards him, wearing his clothes back to front, and when Watt speaks, his words are back to front.

The narrator says he has a little notebook, so maybe he is the same narrator with a little notebook who popped up in part two, saying he kept extensive notes of Watt’s stories. They often walk together in their favourite weather, sunny windy days. Then Watt’s defect deepens and he starts talking by reversing the spelling of words. In fact the narrator documents a further sequence of linguistic oddities, all laid out with the usual obsession for precise variation.

Then he took it into his head to invert, no longer the order of the words in the sentence, nor that of the letters in the word, nor that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, ho no, but, in the brief course of the same period, now that of the words in the sentence, now that of the letters in the word, now that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, and now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period.

Watt describes an afternoon when he, Mr Knott, Mr Graves and Arthur are all in the garden together. Arthur makes his recommendation of Bando to Mr Graves and then proceeds to give a long, rambling, surreal or absurdist account of an academic expedition into darkest Ireland carried out by one Ernest Louit as recounted to the committee of crusty old academics who commissioned him. All this is set in Beckett’s old university, Trinity College, Dublin.

There are five crusty old dons on the committee and there is a spectacularly Beckettian, obsessive-compulsive 3-page description of precisely who was looking at who and where they were sitting and what they saw. But this is as nothing compared to the subsequent scene in which Louit brings along and presents to the committee the ageing peasant Mr Nackybal who turns out to have the uncanny ability to rattle off the square root or the cube root of very large figures. Beckett’s obsessive compulsive, obsessively repetitive mannerisms go into overdrive.

After about 25 pages of the story of Mr Nackybal Arthur abruptly tires, breaks off and goes into Mr Knott’s house. Watt is relieved, it was a very draining story. The story having desisted we move onto a few aspects of Mr Knott, and a fantastically obsessive iteration of all the possible combinations of footwear he could wear. This is surpassed by this description of Mr Knott’s activities in his room:

Here he stood. Here he sat. Here he knelt. Here he lay. Here he moved, to and fro, from the door to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the fire to the door, from the door to the fire; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the bed to the window, from the window to the bed; from the fire to the window, from the window to the fire; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the bed to the door, from the door to the bed; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the window, from the window to the fire; from the fire to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the bed; from the bed to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the fire to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the fire; from the bed to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the bed.

This scales new heights of mad compulsive repetition with a large number of small variations, even for Beckett.

It’s hard not to feel, as these mad repetition scenes mount up, that this kind of mathematical iteration is what replaces, in Beckett, a sensual feel for language. He subjects language to endless algorithmic combinations, but very rarely do you read a sentence which is vivid and breath-taking. Often it is like reading a computer program. Quite regularly there are softer sentences which appear to be recalling a kind of Tennysonian, ‘poetic’, susurration.

At ten the steps came, clearer, clearer, fainter, fainter, on the stairs, on the landing, on the stairs again, and through the open door the light, from darkness slowly brightening, to darkness slowly darkening, the steps of Arthur, the light of poor Arthur, little by little mounting to his rest, at his habitual hour.

But these are never quite convincing or consistent. Beckett is much more at home in the mechanical, in algorithmic repetitions, in perfunctory combinations, creating a new kind of 20th century ‘poetry’, based on objective descriptions, computer manuals, algorithmic permutations or – as here – a parody of bureaucratic forms:

I come from —, said Mr Micks, and he described the place whence he came. I was born at —, he said, and the site and circumstances of his ejection were unfolded. My dear parents, he said, and Mr and Mrs Micks, heroic figures, unique in the annals of cloistered fornication, filled the kitchen. He said further, At the age of fifteen, My beloved wife, My beloved dog, Till at last. Happily Mr Micks was childless.

The last few pages of part three describe Watt’s encounters with Mr Knott, or their joint presence in rooms, but they never communicate, Watt discovers or understands as little about him as when he started in his employ. On the penultimate page there is one of Beckett’s algorithmic fantasias listing all possible permutations of the elements of Mr Knott’s physical appearance, which is even longer than the one above describing the moving furniture in his bedroom.

Eventually we come to the end. Watt gives a final description of the characteristically obsessive patterns or permutations which Mr Knott applied to putting on his slippers, or shoes, or overshoes, or boots, or one slipper and one shoe, or one boot and one slipper etc etc.

And then, quite abruptly, it appears that Watt has told the narrator everything he can, or everything the narrator was able to make out from Watt’s umpteen peculiar ways of speaking, as enumerated earlier. And so Watt returns, moving backwards, through the holes in the fences between their respective gardens, and then walks backwards across his park, continually stumbling over roots and into brambles, back towards his ‘pavilion’.

Which is all very weird and disturbing. This walking backwards across dreamily huge parks, and then talking backwards, is part nonsense in the manner of Lear or Carrol, maybe, but feels more like a disturbing 20th century sci-fi dystopia or bad dream. I found it emotionally upsetting.

Part four

The shortest of the four sections. One night a stranger is sitting in the kitchen when Watt comes down for his night-time drink of milk and to smoke the remains of his cheap cigar. It is Micks, a man who has arrived, like he did all those years ago, out of nowhere. Watt realises it is time to leave Mr Knott’s house, goes upstairs, packs his two little bags, gives Micks a talk much as Arsene gave him (only infinitely shorter) and leaves the house forever. In fact he finds himself out the house, walking down the avenue and then along the road from the house, before he’s really aware of it, and regrets not having said a formal goodbye to Micks.

It’s the early hours so the station is closed. He climbs over the wicket gate, looks up at the night sky, looks back along the highway and sees a peculiar figure shuffling towards the station. It gets larger and larger and then gets smaller and smaller. So it goes.

The station master, Mr Case, is awake and reading a book by Irish writer, poet, critic etc George Russell. Watt asks if he can wait in the waiting room but as this requires entry through the ticket office, which is locked up, this triggers two pages of complex calculations about keys and locks and the correct sequence of opening, closing and relocking doors which eventually results in the answer Yes. Watt says that on reflection he would rather stay outside on the platform walking up and down.

Which makes it odd that we then find him in the waiting room lying down, possibly having a hallucination or memory of an old lady talking. There’s another unusually mysterious and ‘sensitive’ moments, which intersperse the mad combinatory passages:

He lay on the seat, without thought or sensation, except for a slight feeling of chill in one foot. In his skull the voices whispering their canon were like a patter of mice, a flurry of little grey paws in the dust.

It gets slowly very dark. And the slowly the light of dawn appears and Watt can make out shapes in the waiting room, first a chair, then a fireplace, then a picture of a horse in a field. At that point the morning staff of the station arrive, notably Mr Nixon, a loud whistling sort of gentleman who kicks the waiting room door open with great vigour. What he didn’t know was that Watt was directly in its path.

The text now becomes deliberately tricksy, a ‘hiatus’ is indicated in the manuscript, as if it were a venerable relic, and then the message that ‘MS is illegible’. Watt sees the ceiling of the room with preternatural clarity, but from the behaviour of Mr Nixon, Mr Gorman his superior and Mr Case, it seems that Watt is now lying on the floor, badly concussed and bleeding a little from the mouth or nose. (Mr Gorman? Is the husband of the Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who Watt was described as having an affair with earlier in the book?).

The traditional morning commuters turn up including Lady McCann, and Arsy Cox and Herring-gut Waller and Cack-faced Miller and Mrs Penny-a-hoist Pim.

(This all reminds me of the radio play Beckett wrote for the BBC ten years later, All That Fall, which involves a gabby old Irish lady cadging a lift to a railway station. It has the same claustrophobic smallness.)

They all decide something must be done but don’t know what. They don’t know Watt. Nixon and Gorman appear to manhandle the firebucket over to Watt’s prone form and try to tip the water over him, though from the generally lamenting tone, it seems (it’s all described with deliberate obscurity) as if they drop the bucket itself onto Watt.

Then to their surprise, Watt stands up, takes up his bags, walks through to the ticket office and asks to buy a ticket. He doesn’t know where he wants to go. When quizzed, he replies ‘to the end of the line’. ‘Which end?’ Mr Nolan asks, ‘the round end of the square end?’ The nearer end, Watt decides.

So I think what has happened is Watt has been seriously concussed, possibly suffered brain damage and this is the precursor to him going, or being taken, to the institution we found him in, in the disturbing part three.

The last page leaves Watt altogether and gives us a last little flare-up of Beckettian combinatorial obsessiveness.

Mr Nolan looked at Mr Case, Mr Case at Mr Nolan, Mr Gorman at Mr Case, Mr Gorman at Mr Nolan, Mr Nolan at Mr Gorman, Mr Case at Mr Gorman, Mr Gorman again at Mr Case, again at Mr Nolan, and then straight before him, at nothing in particular. And so they stayed a little while, Mr Case and Mr Nolan looking at Mr Gorman, and Mr Gorman looking straight before him, at nothing in particular, though the sky falling to the hills, and the hills falling to the plain, made as pretty a picture, in the early morning light, as a man could hope to meet with, in a day’s march.

This is the final paragraph. In it you can see the obsessive variation trope, but note also the way it ends with a thumping cliché. It is an ending of sorts but an ending which takes the mickey out of endings. But it doesn’t quite avoid the feeling that this is partly because Beckett is not necessarily any good at endings. This is partly because, philosophically, he appears to regard all things as taking part in an endless flux in all directions, through all directions and through time. But a few works after Watt he was to stumble across a form of words which captures this, the sense of endlessness, and one which captures both his bleak nihilism and his determination:

‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on…’

No wonder this formula is then repeated with variations (arguably Beckett’s basic imaginative trope, as Watt abundantly demonstrates) in his subsequent fictions, most famously at the end of Waiting For Godot:

Well, shall we go.
Yes, let’s go.
(They do not move)

Repeated until, like much else in Beckett, it itself becomes a formula and a new cliché, as predictably bleak as a Mills and Boon happy ever after is predictably sentimental.

The addenda

At the end of the book are 30 or so fragments which Beckett couldn’t find place for in the text, but which he attached nonetheless. They include fragments of sentences, songs, definitions, one-line summaries of events, learned references phrases in foreign languages, sheet music, a summary of the second picture to be seen in Erskine’s room and so on.

None of them contain any great revelations, mainly it’s just more of the same banal and trivial events. Nonetheless, puzzling over their implications or how they might have been included or altered the text, has kept scholars happily absorbed ever since. They are humorously introduced with the author’s note:

The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.

Looking at the Amazon reviews of the book, ‘fatigue and disgust’ are what some readers of the book have experienced, who haven’t been able to approach it, who haven’t learned to approach it with the correct tangential, amused attitude, completely liberated from the desire expectation to have character or plot or dialogue that makes sense in a supposed ‘novel’.

And who haven’t been able to see, beneath or behind the obsessive repetition and deliberate anti-plot and anti-character, the sly smile of the Dante-loving cricketer from Dublin.

Thoughts

Experiments

The Wikipedia article humorously quotes S. E. Gontarski’s description of Watt as ‘the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it.’ But it makes total sense if you see it as a congeries of fragmentary exercises stitched together and this is how Beckett himself consistently referred to it.

Much later Beckett said that Watt was written in Roussillon as ‘just an exercise’ while he was waiting for the war to end and it certainly reads like a series of exercises or experiments in the obsessive-autistic manner I’ve described. The use of repetition has you initially grasping to keep the meanings in mind but after a while you submit to it like trance music and go into a kind of Beckett zone where you know none of it means anything but are lulled by the insistent repetitions with variations.

Banned

Like UlyssesWatt was immediately banned in Ireland. It’s not for the explicit sex, as there is none. The episode of the Lynch family more than hints at incest. There’s a description of cousin Ann’s ‘splendid bosom, white and fat and elastic’ and of Sam managing to have sex with countless local ladies despite being confined to a wheelchair. In part three the character Arthur refers to a product named Bando which appears to help with erectile disfunction, and openly criticises the Irish Free State for banning it.

Just as offensive might have been the blunt descriptions of bodily functions i.e. pooing and peeing, number ones and number twos, the description of 64-year-old Mr Nackybal scratching ‘a diffuse ano-scrotal prurit’.

And there is a steady stream of mocking references to God and his son, not blasphemous in the French manner, just casually disrespectful. And a few swearwords, arse and bugger, balls, the word ‘erection’ is mentioned once! Maybe, taken together, that sufficed to trigger the censor’s stamp.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

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