Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Conflict and Intrigue in Mali - an inside view?

A review of The Golden Hour by Todd Moss, GP Putnam’s Sons, NY, 2014

This novel of diplomatic intrigue is set in Mali and revolves around a coup d’etat where all is not quite what it seems to be.  The hero of the piece is Judd Ryker a university professor who has elaborated a theory, based apparently on statistics (although that was never explained) , to the effect that to reverse a coup d’etat one must act early before the politics, personalities  and security arrangements of the coup makers can jell, i.e. within the golden hour(s).    Duh...  In any case this codification of common sense has propelled Ryker into a job at the Department of State where he has been given the responsibility to implement his theory.  Mali, a country that he had some academic experience in, conveniently comes along. 

Ryker, a political appointee, has to confront an unwelcoming and unwieldy bureaucratic system. (This gives author Moss, himself from this milieu, the opportunity to satirize the system; both State and CIA. Yet such digs are not spiteful and descriptions of people and processes have the ring of truth).  Ryker finds that he has to go personally to Mali to discover the truth.  Amazingly he already knows most of the players involved, and although the truth is difficult to discern, our hero works his way through and, of course, saves the day.  Although Ryker is a one man show, unknowingly, he is also a pawn. That is a nice twist in the plot.

Because of author Moss’ background there is much inside scoop on how the State Department reacts to a crisis.  Those knowledgeable will be forced to laugh at themselves. The Mali context was accurate as to places and culture.  I thought the portrait of the ambassador, albeit overdrawn, was fun.  Readers do need to be reminded that this book is fiction, the type of power, and ability to marshal resources to the extent described, just does not exist. 

However, the bottom line is that The Golden Hour is a jolly good read.

The Holocaust linked to Rwandan Genocide

A review of The Ambassadors by George Lerner, Pegasus Books. NY, 2014

No this is not The Ambassadors by Henry James, although it has the same title. The origin of Lerner’s  title is a 1533 painting by Hans Holbein also entitled The Ambassadors.  That painting portrays two distinguished gentlemen  gathered  round a panoply of objects including a globe and a skull, which  indicates their worldliness. Characters in the novel cite that painting and hark back to it on several occasions as the story unfolds.  And a rather odd story it is:  

The novel revolves around Jacob, now an elderly Jew, who found his life’s purpose at the end of the Second World War in saving post holocaust Jews from new horrors and helping them escape to Israel.  Subsequently Jacob remained involved in such efforts, including the evacuation of the Falasha from Ethiopia, wherever Jews were persecuted.  Whenever called to duty Jacob abandoned his family in New York and went to serve. 

When the novel opens Jacob has been called again, but this time to aid the Tutsi people, victims of genocide in Rwanda.  Although not Jewish, Jacob’s preservation mandate has been extended to all those who suffer annihilation.   Even though this plot line is essential to the novel, the thrust of the story is to unwind Jacob’s strained relationships with his wife and son.  She is a respected anthropologist and the son a failure, at least in Jacob’s eyes.  Jacob had more or less abandoned them during his zealous pursuit of justice for global victims.  They, in turn, harbor resentments and antagonisms.   However, in eastern Congo where the Hutu/Tutsi conflict has renewed, Jacob comes to realize that harsh boundaries of right and wrong are perhaps too strict to define humankind’s inhumanities and frailties.  With that growing enlightenment, Jacob returns to New York to sort out his family.  

I read the book because of the Africa connection.  I found that, for the most part, the situation was accurately portrayed.  Neither side comes across as sympathetic.  The genocide is never explained, it is just a given.  While some genocidaires are despicable hoodlums, the ruthlessness of revenge is forthrightly depicted.  In sum, that’s the message - tooth for a tooth has limits - afterwards you just have to cope.   

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

War and Afterwads in Sudan - an extraordinary life

A review of The Red Pelican - Life on Africa’s Last Frontier by Jon Arensen, Old Africa Books, Naivasha, Kenya, 2013.

 This book is a biography with elaborations and dialogue like it might have been.  It tells the tale of Dick Lyth, an Englishman imbued with missionary zeal who, in 1939, set out to minister to Africans in southern Sudan.  Before he could barely get started, World War II began and he offered his services to the crown.   He was commissioned into the Sudan Defense Forces and given the task of securing the south eastern border from aggression from Italian troops based in Ethiopia.  This was not as easy task nor was it easily done because initially Lyth had no troops to command.  However, he recruited among southern tribesmen and soon patched together and trained a small force.   Next was the problem of getting to the border, which was hundreds of miles away across roadless barren desert and waterless plains.  They marched.  Indeed throughout this saga the feats of human endurance that are recounted are amazing.

Climbing to the Boma Plateau on the Ethiopian border, Lyth made friends with the Murle inhabitants and enlisted several in the war effort.  Outgunned by the better equipped Italian led forces, Lyth - completely on his own - devised a hit-and-run guerilla campaign that kept the enemy at bay and in retreat for months until a larger Allied Force could push into Ethiopia and remove the menace.  Lyth subsequently transferred into the colonial administrative service and served as district commissioner for this remote area for the next ten years.  Indeed eastern southern Sudan was then and perhaps still is among the most remote and neglected parts of Africa.  The D.C.’s principal job was to keep the peace and to regulate disputes among the tribes.  Lyth was excellent at this. He understood, listened and was Solomonic in judgment.  As evidence of respect he was given the name Red Pelican by Murle elders. Lyth married his English sweetheart and they raised three children in the isolated administrative towns where they lived.  After an astonishing career, following the independence of Sudan in 1956 Lyth resigned from the colonial service, took Holy Orders and later became the Anglican bishop of Kigezi, Uganda.

This biography is replete with stories of bravery, endurance, cultural tolerance, big game hunting, and governing issues.   It was a time of imperialism, when British rule was uncontested.   The book paints an accurate picture of what life was like, both for the Europeans and the Africans, during this epoch and place. 

The writing was a little turgid at times, but the story line held my interest.  The map in the book was inadequate for the task of locating the action.  Finally, I discovered one geographic error, when the author described Lyth’s initial posting in 1939 to south western Sudan “along the borders of Uganda, Congo and the Central African Republic.”  In those days the CAR was known as Oubangui-Chari.

Those in search of obscure, but real stories about Africa in days gone by will find this a fascinating read.