Monday, August 22, 2005

Book Review: The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester

Ever given a thought to how your dictionary was put together? I have, but because the image entertained a group of curmudgeonly old men sitting down and pouring through large manuscripts, I have never really dwelled on it until I came across Simon Winchester's fascinating book about the origin of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the friendship it sparked between two men, Dr. James Murray, the professor (pic. on RHS of page) and Dr. W.C. Minor, the madman (pic. on cover of book).

Dr. W.C Minor was a surgeon assigned to the American Airforce during the American Civil War, and at some point in his career he was forced to brand an Irishman who abandoned the army. The act of branding this man was to haunt him for the rest of his life and he had a terrible fear that Irishmen were out to get him. Ofcourse, the fact that he had paranoid schizophrenia (known as monomania in those days) only compounded the issue and one night, imagining that someone was out to get him, he shot and killed a certain innocent George Merrett in England which is when he was declared insane and put away in a mental asylum in Broadmoor, UK. He was only 37 years old.

When he was back to his lucid self and realized what he had done, he was full of remorse and insisted on sending Merrett's widow and seven small children, money as compensation. Seven years after Merrett's death his widow infact forgave him and even visited him in his suite/cell bringing him books that he had ordered from antiquarian dealers in London. It is through one of those books that he saw a flyer by one Dr. James Murray, of the London Philological society, requesting contributions in the form of quotes, from the public towards the gargantuan project, the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED project was both ambitious and unique since it not only defined words, but also traced the history of words through quotations obtained from literature and non-fiction. It was initially expected to take 10 years with four volumes, but it turned out to be 70 years and it was 12 volumes!

Minor decided that a project such as this might help his psychosis and his diligence as a contributor resulted in his being responsible for something like 10,000 words in the final OED. Dr. James Murray was very impressed with Minor's contributions and wrote to him often requesting a meeting little realizing that his chief contributor was infact an inmate in a mental asylum. When they did meet however, it was to spark a genuine and wonderful friendship that spanned many decades. The relationship seemed all the more unique because the men came from such different backgrounds: Murray was poor, the son of a tailor, a self-educated Scotsman who spoke 25 languages and was a pious Congregationalist; Minor was a wealthy, aristocratic American, educated at Yale, a surgeon during the Civil War, an agnostic and libertine. But both were brought together by a love of books and langague. Infact, it was due to Murray's intense campaining for his friend that resulted in WC Minor being transferred back to the US to spend his remaining days in the country of his birth.

Simon Winchester, I think, does a brilliant job on this book. He is a wonderful story-teller and uses impeccable Victorian English which draws you in until you feel like you are a part of the coterie of those wise and literary old men.

In particular, in telling Dr. Minor's story, Simon Winchester, using a whole host of anecdotes from Minor's life, manages to describe a very disturbed, and at the same time, an altogether decent human character. By taking us back to Dr. Minor's childhood in Ceylon we are shown how his strict missionary upbringing might have fostered terrible feelings of guilt in him with regard to sex, so much so, that this poor disturbed man actually cut off his penis 'to appease the deities'. You want to cry for such a brilliant scholarly mind that is so consumed with paranoia. It makes you want to scream that in those times there was no medication for schizophrenia, but then again, as Winchester muses, "if he had been treated with mood-altering sedatives, as they would have done in Edwardian times, or treating him as today with such antipshycotic drugs as quetiapine or risperidone, many of his symptoms of madness might have gone away-but he might well have felt disinclined or unable to perform his work for Dr. Murray.." In other words, the burning question is: would we had such a brilliant contribution from him if it wasn't for his madness?

The third protagonist of the book (if I can call it that) is the dictionary itself. To read about the several eccentric personalities that were involved with the dictionary's creation weaves a sparkling tale. Dr. James Murray was the primary editor, but there were a lot of other notable people involved including, Henry Liddell (whose daughter Alice has so captivated the Christ Church mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson that he wrote an adventure book for her, set in Wonderland), Max Mueller, the Leipzig philologist and Oriental scholar, William Stubbs and even a young J.R.R. Tolkien, worked on words beginning with "W" and labored intensely over the history of the word walrus. I especially loved how the author chose some of the most elegant entries from the OED to use as epigrams for each chapter for eg., "polymath", "philology", "sesquipedalian", etc.

All in all this is a wonderful book guaranteed to leave you with a new found appreciation for your common dictionary in general and the OED in your library in particular.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book Review: The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

Author: Moyez G Vassanji
Genre: Fiction, African drama
Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Random House)
ISBN: 1 84195 539 6 PBK (Paperback)
First Published: Canada 2003, UK 2004
Format: Paperback, 439 pp

"My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning..."

And so begins MG Vassanji's Giller prize winner book, "The In-between World of Vikram Lall", the story of a Kenyan-born Indian, now living in Canada, in hiding from those that would hound him in Kenya, recounting the story of his life.

The story opens in colonial Kenya (in the 1950's), around the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2. Resentment towards imperialism is, however, growing, especially in the form of rising Mau Mau atrocities, mostly against the British. The British crack down is equally brutal. They repeatedly round up the Kikuyu for questioning and abandoning moral values, its troops kill and torture civilians with impunity.

The story itself revolves around our protogonist, Vikram Lall whose grandfather was brought from India as an indentured worker to Kenya to help build the East African railway. While reading the book I had often pondered the meaning of the title and conclude that Vikram Lall's world was "in-between" because, as an Asian in Africa, he really was positioned between two groups, the Europeans and the Africans, neither group of which he could be an intrinsic part of and looked down upon with deep suspicion, by both. In Vikram's own words:

“We lived in a compartmentalized society; every evening from the melting pot of city life each person went his long way home to his family, his church, his folk.”

THis is a very interesting story because it recounts the fight for Kenya's liberation through the eyes of an Asian man. The role of the Indians in the liberation of Kenya is not a much-discussed topic mainly because, by and large, the Indians did not take sides. This was either because they were diplomatic, or because they had been used to being expelled to the fringes of African society by both the British and the Africans and didn't really have an opinion on who should rule. I suspect the latter is true.

The story also deals with unrequieted love. Both the Lall siblings, Vikram and Deepa fall in love with people of other races/religions and due to family pressure cannot realize their dreams of getting married to their beloveds. I found this in stark contrast to the earlier generations of Indians who would marry Masai girls quite willingly.

Anyway, things were not so rosy in Kenya after its Independence. Corruption was rife and to his credit, MG Vassanji is not shy about using the names of real Kenyan rulers while depicting them as power-hungry, bribe-accepting men, for eg., Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Mau Mau, who went from prison to the presidency. The Africans, drunk on this new state of African power, turned not only upon their ex-rulers, the British, but also upon other non-Africans (read Asians), trying to seize their properties and businesses through sheer intimidation. Without the appropriate connections to people in power you were rendered powerless in this new corrupt government.

This is how Vikram describes the political atmosphere at that time:

"...if you were connected through family or communal allegiances, even penniless you were protected and favored. Otherwise, suspicion and intimidation could make you a victim of anyone. We Asians were brown, we were few and frightened and caricatured, and we could be threatened with deportation as aliens even if we had been in the country since the time of Vasco da Gama and before some of the African people had even arrived in the land..."

"...this abhorring of a people, holding them in utter contempt, blaming them for your misfortunes---trying to get rid of them en masse---could and did have other manifestations on our continent. Idi Amin cleansed Uganda of its entire Asian population by deporting them, and many African leaders applauded him. Little did they know what a slippery slope it was from that move toward genocide in Rwanda, and then elsewhere..."

The ruling party also severed all ties with the Mau Mau, who were responsible for the fight for independence, stating that they would not be ruled by "hooligans", thus rendering many Kikuyu very, very unhappy and dissatisfied with the government.

Unfortunately, in the 1970's, Vikram Lall takes up a prestigious post as the personal assistant to the Minister of Transport and gets caught up in a whirl of corruption, exploitation, bribery and money laundering. In the end, he is framed by his party, let down by the very people that employed him and has to run away to Canada because he is a marked man in Kenya.

This is a truly wonderful read and the story raises some very important and pertinent points and questions for discussion. I can see book clubs having wonderful and animated discussions if this is picked as a read. A truly great post-colonial novel!

Monday, August 15, 2005

Book Review: Don't Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller is the daughter of white settlers in 1970's Rhodesia. Her book is a memoir of an African childhood in a period of civil war. A lot of the memoirs I have read recently seem to focus on the individual writing the memoir and very little on anything else. THis book, although it doesn't holds one attention like I thought it would, does atleast touch on larger themes like racism, alcoholism, death of family members and guilt, and it's largely because it ventures into exploring these themes that it exonerates itself.

From the UK Guardian:

Alexandra Fuller arrived with her parents and elder sister, Vanessa, in Rhodesia in 1972, seven years after Ian Smith had made his disastrous unilateral declaration of independence in opposition to black majority rule. Her parents were old African hands, having lived before in both Kenya and Rhodesia, and they had returned restlessly seeking something that had always eluded them in damp, restrictive Britain. Happiness, perhaps.

The family soon moves to a struggling farm in the remote Burma Valley on the eastern border with Mozambique, from where Robert Mugabe's Shona Zanu guerrillas are launching cross-border raids at the start of the bush war, killing farmers on their isolated settlements.

As many local whites prepare to flee, often under the cover of darkness, the Fullers become ever-more perversely entrenched on their farm. Protective razor-wire fencing is erected around their compound, the girls receive shooting lessons, and suffering and violent death are accepted as mere facts of life, rather like the weather. Fuller recalls how one girl, who attends the local high school in Umtali, has her legs blown off; on another occasion, a bus explodes after hitting a landmine and body parts hang from the trees like 'black and red Christmas decorations'.

When independence finally arrives, in 1980, and Mugabe, learning from earlier post-colonial struggles in Mozambique, cannily pursues reconciliation with the remaining whites, the Fullers decide to stay on in Zimbabwe. They move further south, to manage another ruined farm, but their lives there amount to little more than a chain of calamities and woes: a newborn child dies (Alexandra has already lost two siblings), the weather is relentless and debilitating, and Fuller monitors, out of the corner of her eye, her mother's slow decline into alcoholism and madness.

She writes with wit and a tough, self-revealing honesty of the loneliness, boredom and poverty of life in those shadowy borderlands, of the shattering silence of the long nights after the generators have been switched off and of continual fear. She does good weather, too; her book is saturated in heat and dust and dirt. Like many first-time writers, she invents her own idiom, at once mangling and stretching language as she seeks to speak and see with the immediacy of the child she once was.

At times, she experiments too much - with alliteration, compound adjectives and short verbless sentences - and in so doing her book becomes an engine of self-delight, a work of exhibitionism: look at me! Yet, once she relaxes into her style, the exuberance and magical readability of her narrative compels the suspension of all critical judgment. Fuller, like Arundhati Roy, whom she stylistically recalls, has the stardust of future celebrity all over her. Her memoir is terrific.

Fuller's parents still live in Africa, in Chirunda, Zambia, in 'one of the least healthy, most malarial, hot, disagreeable places' in the entire country. They are two hours by car from the home of Vanessa and a long way from urban life - 'far from the madding crowd,' her father jokes.

The author is baffled by the wilful eccentricity and stubbornness of her parents and by the strange vacancy of her sister who, she concedes, for most of their time together resided in a place of 'such profound, unreachable pain that she didn't exist for me except as some shadowy, silent, very beautiful unattainable creature'.

From her new home in Wyoming, Fuller refuses to condemn her parents. They have suffered too much because of their profound love of the mysterious continent, never ceasing to mourn the death of their three children.

Needless to say, I found the author's young life shocking in many ways, but the book also helped me understand the current political climate of Zimbabwe, and the origin of why the blacks are dispossessing the white farmers today.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Book Review: Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti

Madame Dread
A Tale of Love, Voodoo and Civil Strife in Haiti
by Kathie Klareich

BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Editors, Journalists, Publishers Thunder's Mouth Press
Fall 2005

When Kathie Klarreich travelled to tropical and mountaineous Haiti on a shopping trip for Haitian artefacts for her arts shop in San Fransisco, little did she know that Haiti was going to feature prominently in her life from that moment on.

On her first week theref, she was sitting across from the Haitian National Palace at a cafe sipping coffee with a friend when, to her shocked surprise, armed militia trucks burst into the palace in a coup d'etat that ousted Leslie Manigat and installed General Prosper Avril as the President of Haiti instead. In a flash, Kathie, an aspiring journalist as well, realized that her being in Haiti was a unique opportunity to report on topical events, after all, how many journalists could actually attest to living in Haiti? Most of them flew in after an episode and then flew out again when they had handed in their news report. She intuitively felt that by living in Haiti she might have found herself a niche and sure enough, in the months that followed, she was paid by the Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, NBC, NPR etc. to cover events in Haiti as they happened. And as political stability in Haiti was so short-lived, there was a lot to keep her busy.

But work wasn't the only thing that kept her in Haiti---she fell in love with a Haitian drummer and they had a child together. She fell in love with the food, the culture, the music, the language Creole, the people and best of all, with voodoo which is an intrinsic part of Haitian culture. Her chapter "Voudou Jew" is an excellent informative piece on voudism in Haiti and I would urge readers to read it and be fascinated.

The book also reads as a fascinating political documentary of Haiti from the late '80's to the current year as Ms. Klarreich covers in detail most of the coups starting from when Averil took over to when Astride (a former Roman Catholic priest) was deposed for the second time. Being on the ground right where the action is and reporting the coups while they were taking place, she is able to give a first-hand report of what took place---fascinating if you are a Haiti or Carribean observer. Her interviews with Astride also provide a rare insight to the man who Haitians placed so much hope on, but who appeared to have feet of clay in the end.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Book Review: Snakepit, Moses Isegawa

The novel "Snakepit" covers the last years of the reign of Uganda's deranged dictator, Idi Amin. The author, Moses Isegawa, who was a child during those years 1971-1979 paints a visceral picture of those very cruel years through three protagonists: Bat Katanga, of Ugandan descent but Cambridge educated. Bat Katanga can't imagine a better time to go back to his native country. After all, this was around the time Idi Amin had expelled all people of Asian origin and jobs were plentiful. Little did he realize what a pit full of vipers he was going to be visiting.

Then there's General Bazooka, who is the poster child of Idi Amin's new government. He's corrupt, cruel, greedy, petty, revengeful and seems totally devoid of empathy, a conscience or any moral values. Wine, women, power, money, tribal revenge and magic white powder (cocaine) seems to be all he's interested in. Finally, there's a British expatriate, mercenary Robert Ashes, who is Amin's right hand man and who intends taking over General Bazooka's anti-smuggling forces, making a deadly enemy of the general in the process.

The social portait that the author presents of Idi Amin's rule makes depressing but compelling reading. Some of the incidents described makes you wonder if it is even possible for human beings to possess so much evil. But it must be, because, according to factual reports, after Idi Amin After seized power in 1971 (he was initially helped by the British and the Israelis), he expelled thousands of Ugandan Asians, and undertook a campaign of imprisonment, torture, and murder that eventually cost between 300,000 and 500,000 lives, out of a population of ten million. An imprudent grab at Tanzanian territory aroused Julius Nyerere's fury against Amin, and Tanzanian regular forces, with some help from Ugandan dissidents, overthrew the tyrant in 1979. The country was in a state of economic collapse.

There are no heroes in Moses Isegawa's book---just evil rulers and victims. It's a sad read, but compelling because it is written by one who was there.