Monday, June 19, 2017

Eight feet in the Andes and Among the Believers

I've mentioned before that I'm on a real reading kick lately, so much so that I haven't posted blogs at my normal rate.  After a string of wonderful books, both fiction and nonfiction, I'm currently stuck with two kind of duds.  One is Eight Feet in the Andes, by Dervla Murphy, and the other is Among the Believers by VS Naipaul.  They're both really dragging, but of course I'm going to slog through them like the dutiful Midwesterner I am.  Maybe they'll pick up by the time I finish them!

So let's start with Eight Feet in the Andes, a travelogue of a woman's journey with her daughter and a mule over the path that Pizarro took from Cajamarca to Cuzco in Peru.  It sounds like a great premise, but it doesn't make for great reading.  The book gets very monotonous, since it's a day-by-day journal.  So it's day after day of stunning vistas, hard-to-follow paths and dead ends, good meals in towns or canned food getting low on the trail, more or less successful searches every afternoon for mule fodder.  It must have been an exhilarating experience to go on that hike.  But reading an account of every day's minutiae is not exhilarating.  Further dragging the book down is that the bit of human variety the author might have added is weighed down by her rather shallow characterizations of shifty mestizos, reticent Indians, educated local elites, etc.  Just a bunch of tropes, but they're being applied to real people.  The fact that the author seems not to have a firm grasp of Spanish, and speaks no Quechua, understandably limits how much she can communicate with anyone.  In anthropology there is a distinction between "emic" and "etic" approaches, the former in which the researcher lives within a community and experiences it almost as a normal member of the community, and the latter describing an approach in which the researcher intentionally maintains more distance in order to have a colder, outsider's view of the society.  Neither is viewed as superior, since both have special insights to offer.  However, Murphy's observations are all so"etic", so totally removed from and clueless about the things she's seeing, that we get no incisive insights.  It's just blind fumbling with little context, rather like the stereotypical Middel American tourist on a whirlwind package tour of Europe.

Surprisingly, VS Naipaul's book is somewhat similar.  It also has an interesting premise--he travels through four predominantly Muslim (but non-Arab) countries in 1980s, just on the heels of Iran's revolution and at the tail end of the immediate post-colonial euphoria of Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.  But Naipaul doesn't seem to have done much research beforehand, whether cultural, political, or historical (recent or ancient).  So he too stumbles about Iran, also like a clueless Midwestern spring breaker, annoyed as it were that he can't find a good Steak and Shake in the medieval religious bastion of Qom.  Naipaul admits repeatedly that he knows little and has never been motivated to learn much about Islam or any of Iran's history between the ancient kingdom of Darius and the Shah's 20th-century rule.  He seems to imply that this gives him an interesting vantage point, perhaps the fresh observations of the innocent.  But it just ends up offering shallow, trite observations, totally dependent on whatever translators or other interlocutors Naipaul happens to run into.  It's like "I met this guy who said XXXX", over and over again, so you come away with a very consciously incomplete picture of a place, which you don't know whether it is totally anecdotal and nonrepresentative, or if he might have hit gold and really captured the spirit of the place (which Naipaul would seem to imply that he has in fact done).  I understand if Charles Barkley, a bunch of empty-headed TV execs, and the public that watches them might think it's a great idea or a chance for grand insights to have Barkley bumble about the US asking white folks and extremists about race.  But I would have expected Naipaul to strive for a bit more insight and research and nuance and just professional rigor.

Naipaul is constantly bemused (in a rather acid, condescending way) at how Iranians use "Western" things (like suits, airplanes, and skyscrapers) while demonizing the West.  He faults them if they call a telephone "modern" instead of admitting that it is "Western" (which is ironic of him, as most of the phones either in Tehran or his beloved England in 1980 were already probably being manufactured in Japan or Taiwan), but also regards snarkily an Iranian author's denomination of modern architecture as "Western".  In short, Naipaul once again proves to be an overly zealous defender of all that is "Western", coming as he does from a provincial backwater that is at best on the margins of "the West" and at worst simply a hodgepodge of Native American, African, and South Asian cultures thrust into the Carribean.  His is the zeal of the colonial convert.  Naipaul sees the absurdity of Iranians' "rejecting" the West or modernity or generally the global world they are inextricably a part of, but he doesn't see that his own separation and rejection from Iran mirrors theirs, just from the "Western" point of view, and is just as absurd.  Here is a deft review of Among the Believers that really breaks down the incoherence of Naipaul's eagerness to point out the flaws and the ugly in the "non-Western" world, while regarding with uncritical awe a mythical "West".  I quote at length from this review:  
"It has been a Naipaulian assumption that only men who live in remote, dark places are 'denied a clear vision of the world.' This is the major theme of much of his work. And many men who have left the third world to settle in other places have a tendency to think this way as well. (My own country, Lebanon, for instance, is not unlike Naipaul's birthplace). Their intellectual vocations often allow them to look at their own countries and similar ones with a critical eye, and to feel that they have a right to judge and interpret the places they have broken with. But these same men usually approach the civilization of the West with awe and leave it unexamined."

I feel lucky to have met my wife and been exposed to a very different, less binary way of seeing "the West" and "the rest".  Colombians in general, and my wife most strongly, have shown me how to look honestly and critically at Western foibles, as well as their own indigenous flaws, and even at the Western critiques of the Third World, with a rather magnanimous view, for Colombians see themselves in both the West and the Third World, and they see the Third World and the West in themselves.  So they can make the incisive comments about the Third World that Naipaul does, without rejecting it all out of hand, and without supposing that the recognition of the flaws in the Third World must necessarily lead to an uncritical embrace of all things Western

I keep wanting to like Naipaul.  He is a Nobel laureate and considered one of the English language's finest authors.  But in the one book of fiction that I've read of his, and now in his account of a Muslim world that is totally strange to him and which he makes little effort to truly understand, he seems so scornful of everything that I have a hard time connecting to him, or seeing much brilliance at all.
Again to quote from the NYT book review,
"The shadows have been 'crowding upon' Naipaul, too, obscuring his vision. More and more the women and men in his fiction and political essays appear to be unsupported by anything of value, diminished and disfigured, vain, insincere, crazed, dishonest. Surely, as Conrad would tell us, this is too simple a view of things, for 'a man is much more like the sea whose movements are complicated to explain, and whose depths may bring up God only knows what at any moment.' Were Naipaul to meditate on places less haunted for him by old ghosts, he might come to realize some of the truths that Conrad learned; that darkness is not only there but here as well; that all men and societies are haunted by their own demons; that all of us are denied a clear vision of the world." 
Granted, he may have written Among the Believers in 1981, some 25 years before aggressive bafflement at the backwardness of the Muslim world become a cottage industry of books and Fox News daily programming.  So maybe Naipaul at least gets a prize for being ahead of his time, a Huntington-style Islamophobe when the rest of the Charlie-Wilson-era world was freaking out about the Soviets and was eagerly arming jihadists without a second thought.  But frankly Naipaul's tone isn't much different from the current Fox News stance of willful ignorance and resolute refusal to understand anything.  A review of the follow-up book to Among the Believers describes the two works as a "complacent diatribe", and "travel literature of the worst kind".

To summarize, Eight Feet in the Andes and Among the Believers are pretty dull and dismal and devoid of much merit.  In this they are totally different from Kaplan's treatment of Romania in In Europe's Shadow.  Granted, Kaplan had thirty years of travels in and reading about Romania to enrich his narrative, but even if you're going somewhere for the first time, it would surely help to read extensively beforehand (or intensively study the language so you can speak with people once you're there).

No comments:

Post a Comment