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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, January 31, 2008

"exterminate all the brutes"

Part of my problem in starting a fresh blog-post is not that I'm running out of ideas for posts, but that there are too many ideas--too many things to talk about. I find it intimidating that here, with my chance to talk about anything I want, I come up against the limits of what I can express--how much time and space I have to say whatever I may want to say. How well do I use the resources I've been given?

One very provocative line of reading and thinking lies with the book "Exterminate All the Brutes" by Sven Lindqvist which I'm making my way through.

The quotation marks are part of the title; it's a literary reference. Do you recognize it? It's from Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, first published in 1899. The line is due to the colonial despot Kurtz, summing up his attitude to the locals over whom he has absolute power, and giving voice as well, as Lindqvist shows, to the de facto agenda of European colonialism from its start.

With a book like this, there is always the danger that it will turn out to be politically correct preaching and finger-wagging about Eurocentrism and racism. This book is not the least bit like that. It is indeed about colonial cruelty and racism, things that Lindqvist clearly deplores, but his approach is that of a curious, puzzled, and highly motivated investigator. And his method, so personal and individual, has as much poetry in it as scholarship.

His "method", if it can even be called that, was to journey to North Africa, to the Sahara, with a computer and a mass of data discs containing relevant research texts. There, while making his way from desert city to desert city by bus and taxi, he studied, thought, and read--all the while taking in the strange and frightening colors of his surroundings. In a series of short chapterlets, almost always less than a page, he shows the connections he makes between the historical and literary material, interspersing his thoughts with descriptions of his journey, his dreams, and a few striking memories of his childhood in Sweden. It's a truly unique literary stew--and a marvelous one.

Taking Heart of Darkness as a watershed, a powerful literary indictment of colonialism as it was (and is) actually practiced, Lindqvist uncovers many of the specific sources and inspirations that Conrad drew on to create his story. (Conrad of course had also skippered a riverboat on the Congo for awhile.) One fascinating insight is that H. G. Wells's novel The War of the Worlds, published in 1898, was itself a work in this same stream: the cruel, pitiless, technologically superior Martians were simply the British or the French, and we hapless humans the "natives" of Earth, targeted for destruction so that our new overlords could harvest the coveted resources of our planet. Wells, like Conrad, was a critic of colonialism.

Lindqvist shows that Wells's vision was no exaggeration. One of his disc sources included Winston Churchill's account of the 1898 battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, in which 11,000 Sudanese were killed and 16,000 "wounded" (no one knows whether any of these actually did survive), while the British took only 48 casualties. As Lindqvist puts it, "the entire Sudanese army was annihilated without once having got their enemy within gunshot." In the words of Churchill, who was there:

It was a terrible sight, for as yet they had not hurt us at all, and it seemed an unfair advantage to strike thus cruelly when they could not reply.

The British soldiers' rifles grew so hot from continual firing that they had to exchange them for reserve rifles, rotating them in and out of action. Brass shell casings formed into hills beside the shooters. The climactic colonial "battle" for dominance of North Africa was a turkey-shoot.

Covering as much ground as it does, Lindqvist's book is brief: a total of 172 tersely written pages. And that's another thing: his prose, even in translation, is a model of vividness, clarity, and power. Picking a passage more or less at random:

Clusters of animals and people are incessantly on their way across the dried-out riverbed that is Tam's equivalent of Hyde Park. Weary camels lower their heads and blow at the dust to see if conceals anything edible, and patient goats graze pieces of paper. Women come with their burdens, not on their hips as in In Salah, but on their heads. Groups of boys drift around, every step tearing up a cloud.

But Tam has a specialty. It has a road--indeed, a motorway--on which if necessary you would be able to make your way across the river bed with polished shoes. It is reserved for the army.

An officer comes across this bridge on his way to the post office, four men with him in white lace-up boots and white helmets, the chinstraps under their noses. Outside the post office they march on the spot while he walks past the queue, demands a stamp, and sticks it on. Then six steps forward and another spell in neutral as he mails the letter--at which they all march on with the same solemn expression of satisfaction.

Not bad at all.

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  • On the first paragraph. What I think. I have some ideas of what to write. I try to choose the most interesting and the most important things.

    By Blogger Liza, at February 03, 2008 12:51 AM  

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