First of all, apologies for the short absence. I was, among other things, in Berlin (of course this led me to buy some books about Berlin, I’ll review one of them shortly when I finish it). Today’s post is a joint review of two short anthology-style books that I have read recently, they are:
No Room in the Ark – Alan Moorehead (Penguin, London, 1963)
Power Systems – Noam Chomsky (Penguin, London, 2014)
The non-existent avid reader of this blog may recall that I recently reviewed another work of Alan Moorehead’s, and somehow I found out that he had also written a book about African wildlife called No Room in the Ark. It was, unsurprisingly, very easy to acquire via a certain well-known virtual bookseller, and I promptly received a rather fetching classic orange Penguin version with a picture of some grey flamingos on the front. I felt this was a rather odd choice, given that almost any other specimen of African wildlife could look more colourful and attractive…
Anyway, the book details three trips Moorehead made in Africa in the mid-to-late 1950s. Instantly, my ‘historian of empire in Africa’ sixth sense was piqued. Perhaps there would be more than just sad stories about the devastation of wildlife in this book (a la The Fatal Impact).
And indeed, this proved to be the case. The places Moorehead visited were largely British-controlled, and the book turned out to be more interesting to me as a travelogue through post-War British Central and East Africa than a treatise on wildlife. This is a good way to think about the book, as a ‘primary source’, not least because it is incredibly dated.
For Moorehead, Africa seemed largely shaped by his imagination, and I started to get tired during the first story about a safari Moorehead took with his wife in the game parks of South Africa. While Moorehead’s prose was beautiful, and his descriptions of the fauna that he saw there are quite charming, I kept getting annoyed by his very narrow view of what ‘Africa’ was. Like innumerable white people before him, Africa was a place where white people went to look at nice animals. A vast, empty land full of rhino and antelope which has remained essentially unchanged since the dawn of time.
This is, of course, ridiculous. Africa, like everywhere else in the world, has long been a site of constant change and evolution. Sometimes Moorehead captures this wonderfully, and is very sensitive to how colonialism has not only changed the situation for the wildlife, but for the African people, usually the elephant in the room (no pun intended) of anything made in the West which deals with African nature. At the same time he constantly expresses disbelief that parts of Africa are so recognisably western – the inns and hotels of Uganda, the road system of the Belgian Congo, the streets of Johannesburg – Moorehead sometimes gives the impression that these things do not belong, that there is an essential savagery to Africa that can never be tamed. Its the same sort of tosh that arch literary neo-imperialist Wilbur Smith writes about all the time.
Whilst these reveries on the true nature of Africa were tedious, they were thankfully subsumed within an interesting wider narrative, though one that did not necessarily hang together that well. The most coherent story might actually be the last part of the book in which Moorehead travels down the Upper Nile on a rickety old steamboat. Perhaps the fact that Moorehead was on a single journey from one place to another helped, rather than seemingly randomly off on a jolly around the African countryside.
In summary then, I actually found No Room in the Ark interesting for completely different reasons than I had originally though, as a chronicle through late-era imperialism in ‘British’ Africa rather than as a story about wildlife. Wildlife, of course, featured heavily, but the underlying structures of domination and control were what came to the fore for me, no doubt because of my historical background. I will give it four ∏∏∏∏ of these ‘n-ary product’ signs for that reason.
The second anthology book I read was Noam Chomsky’s Power Systems. To be honest though, this is a bit disingenuous as it isn’t really a book written by Chomsky, but rather a collection of interview transcripts for discussions which took place between him and a radio show host in 2010-2012. This lends the book a rather eclectic and piecemeal nature, making it easy (and perhaps more rewarding) to read in short bursts rather than one sitting.
The book consists of a number of chapters, but there is no real structure. The text is simply the basis of conversation which jump from one big event in current affairs to the other – the Arab Spring, the financial crisis, technological developments and so on. Reading these conversations, you can see why Chomsky is respected and reviled by many in turn. I found him to be eloquent and coherent in his opinions on the issues, but it is hard to appreciate a book like this as anything more than ‘what some guy thought about some stuff four years ago’. This is not to demean Chomsky’s opinion but rather a critique of the style of book. I can see from the most cursory research that Chomsky has written dedicated books on specific subjects like the Occupy movement and I feel that I would rather read that than listen to his answers to several questions on the subject which were asked over the course of two years. Reading this book was a bit like reading snippets from a series of good and interesting periodical articles – things you would enjoy, perhaps remember and think about, at the time and then move on – condensed and immortalised here in a book it just comes off as a bit scrappy.
Nevertheless, as noted, the book has piqued my interest and I would like to read more of Chomsky’s work, even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says (he seems to display an almost stereotypical ornery old man’s opinion of technology usage by younger people). Nevertheless, I feel that this is not the best way to present such commentary as it doesn’t really stand the test of time in this form. Three ∏∏∏ n-ary product signs.