The Road: A Review

The Road is a fantastic book. And like all fantastic books the story is simple: that of survival, the story of a father and son heading south to the coast through a devastated post-apocalyptic world. The book centers on their relationship and bond. It is a powerful one. A bond of mutual devotion, where the son reminds his father, in his simple, young innocence that there is still good in the world. Even amidst scene of savagery and cannibalism. And the father goes to almost any length to ensure the safety of his son.

McCarthy’s language is elegant but spartan. He is the worthy heir of Hemingway, stylistically. His narrative pacing and the power of the scenes he creates with such simple language—language an eighth grader could understand—set him above all his contemporaries. Every single word in the book does heavy lifting. Nothing is superfluous.

There were several scenes in the book that left me deeply affected. I won’t give away any spoilers. The violence, the sense of impending menace, the sheer realism and the beauty of devotion make this book both impossible to put down but almost as impossible to read. It is a powerful, moving book.

I was, needless to say, eager to see the movie.

Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron and Kodi Smit-McPhee make up the core of the cast. Theron was well cast and does an admirable job. And so was Mortensen. His silent, brooding, single-mindedness alone almost carries the film. He won’t win an Oscar for his role, but it may lead to him signing other roles in the future that will. And Robert Duvall’s short appearance is quite possible the most memorable scene in the film.

The movie hews, like few movies based on books I’ve seen, to the novel. The screenplay adaptation is efficient and just as spartan as McCarthy’s prose. This doesn’t work. The Road is one of those books that simply cannot be made into a movie.

And while the narration by Mortensen is identical to passages of the book—Mortensen is a fine actor and brings a desperate gravitas to the screen—his narration is flat.

One could say the movie is true to the letter of the book. But that’s the problem. It’s just not true to the spirit. Sure, the cinematography is excellent. Computer generated graphics are used only sparingly, to heighten the sense of complete devastation. I don’t know where the movie was filmed, but the cold, ashy menace of the book was captured well. And the movie—thank God—like the book, leaves the big questions open: what happened to the world and why? This is as it should be.

In the end, however, the movie fails. The young actor Kodi Smit-McPhee just doesn’t have what it takes. I never got the sense that he was really there. He was not a character in full. Something always seemed to be missing. The bond between he and his father seemed tenuous. And the innocent goodness McCarthy created around him in the novel is just not there in the movie.

Instead of spending $18 at the movies,buy the book. Pass it on to your friends, wife or children—grown children that is.

I cannot recommend the book highly enough. The book will not disappoint but the movie will.

Boxing Day

Sean Paul stepped into the ring and landed a blow. He danced around his opponent, blocking and jabbing, blocking and jabbing.

“This is going well,” he thought and then worked in a right hook, yelling, “hah! I sting like a butterfly.”

He woke up on the floor a few seconds later, his opponent shaking his head in disgust.

“It’s a bee, dumbass.”

A Buddhist Kingdom’s Descent Into Hell

All That RemainsIn light of this story in the Washington Post today about the trial of a former Khmer Rouge prison chief, I thought I would post a story I wrote for publication while I was in Cambodia. It was never published, as the travel editor I was working with was laid off the day after I filed the story. Some of my posts on Cambodia can be found here and here.

Phnom Penh, November 26, 2008.

Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen: each name is immediately recognizable as the scene of heinous crimes. But if you mention the words ‘Tuol Sleng’ or ‘Choeung Ek’ you’re almost guaranteed to draw a blank. What? Where? Huh?

Tuol Sleng served as the detention and processing center for enemies of the Pol Pot regime; the sentences were carried out at Choeung Ek, better known as the ‘killing fields.’

I was very hesitant to stay in Phnom Penh. And I certainly didn’t want to witness ground zero of Cambodia’s self-immolation. But the morning after I arrived from Saigon, however, I grabbed a tuk-tuk, the Cambodian equivalent of a tri-shaw and made my way to Tuol Sleng.

Toul Sleng is a former school. In the center sits the old administration building. Flanked on the left and right by two story buildings made up of classrooms the campus resembles an ‘E’ laying on its back. In the center of the campus children once played, laughed and dreamed. But no longer. A rough silence blankets the school grounds while the city surrounding goes about its business. Touts call out for tourists, beggars beg and the assorted smells, burning plastic mixed with the spices of the East waft in the air. South East Asia lives on in Phnom Penh.

The first two rooms had small iron beds in the middle. Here the regime electrocuted its enemies until they confessed their crimes. All questions were canned, the answers predetermined. The rules of transgression were clear, and posted outside the rooms: “While getting lashes or electrocution you must not cry out. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.”

The next room I visited was filled with rows and rows of black and white photos of the men and ‘processed’ here at Tuol Sleng. All were old and grainy, adding verisimilitude to an atmosphere of silent terror permeating the school-cum-prison. These simple black and white photos, the act of looking into the eyes of the damned, spoke more eloquently than any monument to human suffering could.

A young man with long fuzzy hair stares into the camera, eyes wide in sheer terror. His look haunts my nights still. A young girl, not more than 18 years old, looks out with a piercing, stoical gaze. A grandmother, short-haired, toothless, scarf hanging from her shoulders peers into space, exhausted. Another young man peers into the lens, head cocked in a last act of defiance; knowing what awaits. And finally, a boy, no older than eight or nine years old appears on the verge of tears.

Just who were these enemies? Mostly educated Cambodians, although the many children in the photos betray an all-encompassing barbarism. Some victims were even pulled off the street for the crime of wearing spectacles. The goal of all this torture? Pol Pot’s desired creation of an agrarian worker’s paradise.

I left the school grounds shaken, clambered into my tuk-tuk and drove to the outskirts of the city. The countryside surrounding the capital remains distressed. Blue skies and high, wispy cirrus clouds hung overhead. Below, in the fields death crouched. UXOs, the silent enemy, lay in the fallow rice paddies. Brambles and weeds hiding the deadly foe in what were once orderly, prosperous farms.

In the distance a large stupa (a Buddhist temple of sorts) rose up over the wasteland. As I drew near it grew larger and larger, until it was the equivalent of a four-story building. Unaware of what awaited me at Choeung Ek, I strode up to the stupa. Had I known I’d see four floors of glass encased human skulls—like a sickening high school terrarium project gone awry—I doubt I’d have continued. All showed signs of head trauma. Some with skulls shattered by blunt force, others with small, neat bullet holes. Each are very, very real. All the last remains of lives snuffed out by wanton cruelty and social engineering.

Before Pol Pot’s regime turned Choeung Ek into a charnel house it was an orchard. It is still fecund, trees grow all around, grasses and weeds proliferate. Water is plentiful. Tropical songbirds sing in the trees above the dozens of shallow graves littering the area around the stupa. Signs narrate the gruesome tale. One informs the visitor that the mass grave at her feet was filled with around a hundred women and children, all of whom were naked at the time of their execution. Another is nailed to a tree where executioners bashed the brains out of children. A glass case filled with bones and a cup of teeth is all that remains of the child victims of Pol Pot’s regime.

The sign that disturbed me the most said, “Magic Tree: The tree was used as a tool to hang a loudspeaker which make (sic) sound louder to avoid the moan of victims while they were being executed.” That man can be so cruel and cunning in devising a system that drowns out the voices of the dying, for the executioner’s ease, is unspeakable.

I returned to my barren hotel room, pondered heading to a bar to drink away what I witnessed but thought better of it.

There is much more to Cambodia than it’s heart of darkness. And there is hope. But it’s tenuous at best. Even now famine stalks the Eastern portion of the country. And yet, the people outside the capital are warm, generous and happy. Angkor Wat, adjacent Siem Reap, is stupendous, worth a full week’s visit itself.

But no visit to Cambodia is complete without seeing Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek. In one century man has committed four major genocides: those perpetrated against the Armenians, European Jewry, Cambodians and Rwandans, not to mention those against the Kurds, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovars. One, in the Sudan, is already underway in the 21st century.

“Perhaps there is a lesson to all this,” I thought to myself later that evening. Nothing is unique about any of them and complacency is deadly. If this once peaceful Buddhist Kingdom can collapse into an orgy of inhumanity so might we. It can happen anywhere.

Reyes Returns

“Whatcha writing, white-boy?” Reyes asks me.

“I’m writing a story about how filthy and poor India is and why you don’t want to visit,” I said.

“You are always complaining about India. Didn’t you derive at least some spiritual benefit from the place? I mean, you’re Buddhist, right?” he said, wiggling his pug nose in disgust. His brown eyes were bloodshot after a long night of tequila, Tecate and football.

“Indians are Hindhu, you ugly Mexican. “And No,” I said. “I didn’t go to India to find myself spiritually or to hang out in an ashram or learn the meaning of life or any of that nonsense.”

“Why did you go, then?” He asked.

“Cuz it was there.”

The Golden Fields of Amhara-land

Ethiopian ShepherdThe fields stretch out across the horizon. An attenuated, high altitude light falls on the dark volcanic soils. The rusted hulks of dead war machines litter the roads. A shepherd boy smacks a goat into line, driving them all back into line. Baboons scamper across the highway. The main north-south artery between Addis Ababa and Axum is a dirt road. It is a more fecund land than I ever expected. But who could blame me for thinking otherwise? After all, in the 1980s Ethiopia was a famine crippled land.

But it is a fragile fecundity, dependent as much on the counter-Monsoon as India is. A full 60% of the water volume that flows into the Nile drains out of Ethiopia, as well. Significant portions of Ethiopia are very arid. The area north of Gonder on the road to Axum is semi-arid, but by the time I arrived in Axum it was all dust and sand with only a little, very sparse vegetation. Most of the Tigray region is like this, as well. The Awash Basin, a newly formed mass (new in geological terms) of sand, sulfur and dust, is being shorn from Africa to the East as the Red Sea and Arabia pull it away from the continent. And to the South of Addis? Well, I don’t know what the farm land is like there. I didn’t see it. Ethiopia is also densely populated. At least in Amharaland–that area in the center of the country which is dominated by the Amharan-speakers. It’s a land of small farms, lots of people and extreme poverty, as they eke out a meager existence farming tef, a crop grown only in Ethiopia used to make injera, that nasty, slightly sour and spongy bread the Ethiopians so love.

And now, into this mix of dire poverty and overpopulation comes the mega-farm. Ethiopia is now selling leasing it’s most precious resource: it’s land. And some people think this is just peachy:

many experts are cautiously hopeful, saying that big agribusiness could feed millions by industrializing agriculture in countries such as Ethiopia, where about 80 percent of its 75 million people are farmers who plow their fields with oxen.

In this age where the US has become a net food importer anyone who believes that industrial agri-business is a good thing needs to have a long talk with Don Henry Ford, Jr. Industrial food production does increase yields, but at the cost of food quality and a serious decrease in the redundancy of food distribution. In a country like Ethiopia, which has suffered famine in the past, a lack of redundancy in distribution can be cataclysmic.

If this trend continues in Ethiopia the following will happen: many, many farmers will be driven off their land. After that they will swarm the cities. And when the crops fail, due to a poor Monsoon, one of two things will happen: the big agri-farms will suck as much water out of the lakes and the Nile drainage in Ethiopia and the Sudan and Egypt will suffer. Or, there will be famine in Ethiopia. Or both.

Ode To ‘Something’

My buddy—we’ll call him ‘A’—and I are sitting on his back porch. His dog is spinning around wildly in circles, chewing on an old, smelly, dog-slobbered rag. The dog likes to set the rag in my lap, as some kind of canine-human bonding trick. “A” and I have both had far too much to drink.1

“Dude, have you seen those new thingeys?” he asks.

“What-huh?”

“It’s one of those doo-dads you see on TV, man!”

I look up from the computer in my lap. We’ve been chatting across the porch to each other via instant messenger, checking our emails and generally acting like the GenX slackers we are. We call it ‘compunicating.’

“Are you high?” I ask. I punch the key board, shooting a quick, “you’re a freak’” IM back to him across the internets.

“No,” he says. “But pass the Scotch.”

“At least you know what that is,” I tease.

“C’mon man, you know what I’m talking about, they were advertised during the last Superbowl. They sell ‘em at, um, uh, whosamawhatsit!”

“What on God’s green earth are you talking about?” I sigh. I grab the bottle of scotch and pour him another drink. And one for me. He smiles. He’s having a hard time focusing his eyes. The dog starts barking.

“Eh, freak, you know what I’m talking about. Those thingamabobs!”

“Yeah, thanks. That helps. . . ” And before I can finish he says, “They’re about yay-high and about half the size of my, umm, uh, left foot.” He holds it up for good measure.

“You need help.”

“No, I don’t,” he says and coughs, lights up another smoke. “Ack, it’s on the tip of my tongue. I can’t get it out. It’s like one of those damn gahooters we had a few weeks ago.”

“Huh?”

“You’ve seen ‘em. We had one for a while in our whosamajiggy.”

“Whydontwejustaskyergirlfriend,” I IM him and then say, “She’ll know what you’re talking about you ingrate. Hey! ‘E’, ‘A’ has a question for you.”

“Honey,” he yells, “you know that whomagutchey we saw last night. What’re they called?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says, “those thingamajigs that hang from the doo-hickey on the whatchamadoodle?”

“Guys,” I say, “I’d hate to listen to one of your lover’s spats.”
———
1 Dialogue inspired by Schott’s Weekend Vocab.

‘Travelling The Silk Road’ Exhibition Review

This is an exceptional review not necessarily about the exhibition but some of the current thinking emerging about the role of the Silk Road on Western History. I suggest reading it. Here’s the clincher:

[T]he critical intellectual shortcoming of the exhibition is that with Baghdad, the Silk Road seems to come to a prematurely celebratory end. Why, instead of dealing with the development of Arab shipping in a final gallery, didn’t the show follow a narrative, visible on one of its maps, leading past Baghdad and to the port of Venice? By extending the history another few centuries, we would have seen how the Silk Road led to a fertilization of Western thinking, not just with the discoveries of Islamic scientists but also with a variety of philosophical and religious perspectives that proved influential over the course of centuries. We know how deeply affected Marco Polo was by the Silk Road in the 13th century: he passed that enthusiasm on.

This would have helped the exhibition make a more cogent contribution to Western cultural self-understanding. It would have also helped explain why, once European shipping and exploration took off in the late Renaissance, the overland Silk Road route became more and more a commercial backwater, leading to centuries of cultural and political decline, whose effects are still being felt.

Persian OrnamentAfter my first trip across the Silk Road in 2003 I began to devour, wholesale, as much scholarship on it as I possibly could. And one thing that became very clear early on was that the official narrative of the Silk Road wasn’t anything close to the reality. Sadly, it has been extremely slow going. (I now have an extensive library–at least two hundred books and countless scholarly articles relating to the subject. And growing.) Most of the scholarship is either at least a century old, or in Russian, German and French–of which I only speak one. (The Russian scholarship suffers from the Marxist dialectic, as well.) And yet I found a lot of truth in the old saw, ‘read an old book and learn something new.’ Even before I read Beckwith’s book my ideas had shifted drastically towards his own. His book was a much appreciated validation of my own ill-formed ideas.

However, Christopher Beckwith’s book, which I reviewed in brief a few weeks ago, goes a long way toward rectifying this. The pollination between East and West is much more tremendous than we think. The sheer amount of ideas and innovations which moved from East to West are enough to give one pause: paper, the divine right of kings from China via Persia, Islamic motifs in Western sacred architecture, religious iconography including halos, paper currency, the stirrup–this one alone had a massive impact on Europe. The list is long. But the most profound idea that emerged from the littoral states of the West’s contact with the great Asian hinterland is the millenia-old dialogue between ‘the other’ and the settled states. And then there is the troublesome political problem of those pesky Indo-Europeans, who migrated from the Pontic Steppe sometime around 3,000BC and took with them a cultural complex that would literally change the world: the domestication of the horse, the wheel and the chariot. And the concomitant spread of the linguistics that forms the basis of existing languages from the Indian sub-continent, to Iran to Western Europe. And dead languages whose echoes can still be heard in the Tarim Basin.

While I don’t have much truck with ‘world system ‘ theorists the sheer amount of evidence behind the idea that the West could not have arisen without pollination from the East is inescapable. But it’s a very complicated story and sadly one that doesn’t fit into a snap narrative. Too much energy is spent on Central Asian studies now that focus on only the last hundred or so years. It simply has to go much, much further back in time than that. It’s also a subject that is endless fascinating. For me, the conquest of Central Asia by the Russians is much less interesting that the role of trade between China and the Steppe Nomads hundreds of years before Christ. The Chinese, who adopted much of the cultural complex of the Indo-Europeans, needed horses. What did they do? They slowly encroached on the lands of the Steppe Nomads to feed their war machine. (One Chinese emperor nearly lost everything, surrounded by a horde of horseman in the dead of a Chinese winter, as he was. By the way, our word for horde comes from a region of China called the Ordos Loop. Google it.) When the nomads fought back the Chinese decided to trade. The Chinese bartered silk and the nomads’ horses. A revolution began. (And no, I am not oversimplifying.) The old world, although tenuously linked, was linked forever after this. Silk soon began appearing in great amounts in Western markets–and with it so much more.

The genius of Beckwith’s book isn’t the reinterpretation of Central Asian history, although it is quite an achievement. The genius is in the questions he raises. One question he brought up was this: how is it that between the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD the great states of the world at the time underwent wholesale and violent religious revolutions? What, for lack of a better turn of phrase, was in the wind? Big, and new meta-questions such as this one pepper his book.

Regardless, if you are in New York City and have a chance to see the exhibit please do. I would love to hear more.

On The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Day of the Eleventh Month

Every year on this date I am reminded of how lucky I was to meet Cpl. Ed Neidemier. It was my junior year at the University of Houston. I’d been assigned a project by my American Military History professor to interview an American veteran. Many people found veterans of the Second World War, Vietnam, Korea and one or two from Desert Storm. I’d always had a fascination for World War One, and wanted to meet an American veteran of that conflict. So, an early fall day, a day not unlike today, when the air had a nip of cold in it and only a wisp of high cirrus clouds I drove from Houston to Dallas to meet Cpl. Ed. He was in his early nineties at the time but his eyes were still a crystal blue and while his hands were soft with the years his handshake was firm.

Sadly, I lost my notes from the interview several years ago. But I still remember much. He was a supply clerk. He drove a horse drawn wagon from a supply depot to the front lines, which were moving up when he arrived in France. He spoke of the sounds of artillery in the night, “like Zeus’ own thunderstorm,” he called it. He spoke of the time when he stole a pair of boots for an African-American soldier who’s shoes had deteriorated ‘in the muck of mud and rotting flesh.’ He spoke of how afraid he was before the war, being a German farm boy from Iowa–who’s first language was German–and how he enlisted as a 17 year old. A year before he was legally allowed to. He spoke of how moved and saddened he was when he shipped out of New York City, looking out at the Statue of Liberty wondering if he would ever see home again.

He spoke of the days after the Armistice Day when he ‘puttered around the trenches’ and traded a German soldier a few dollars for his Mauser. He showed me the gun. As I held it in my hands I wondered how many men it had killed. He told me what it was like to return home in or around 1919-1920. The parades, the euphoria, the joy. But through it all, he always said, “it was the greatest time of my life. Both bad and good. Horrible and awesome.”

I believe there is only a handful of World War One veterans left in the world, and the few that are left are French. All the American soldiers of World War One have died. So have the British soldiers. I don’t know about the Germans or the Russians or any of the other nations which fought in the war. The war fades, the hundredth anniversary of its beginning is right around the corner. Memories fade.

But my image of Cpl. Ed doesn’t. Perhaps some small part of the cataclysm, or suicide of Western Civilization, as it has often been called, remains within me. Cpl. Ed’s blue eyes certainly do.

On That Indian Economic Miracle

Veggies!It’s obvious by what I’ve written in the past (here and here as well.) that I don’t think highly of India’s economic prowess, writ large and I don’t believe any of the hype when it comes to India’s economic miracle. But Quax makes a point about Kerala that deserves further comment.

Quax discusses matrifocal ethnicity in Southern India, namely the state of Kerala. And he’s right: Kerala is different from the rest of India. I’m not sure what makes Kerala different: the prevalence of Christianity, the relative freedom of women in the state, years of Communist rule, and the forward looking and commercial character of Muslims there? Perhaps it’s a combination of all four. Needless to say, Kerala was the cleanest, least intimidating and most upwardly mobile of Indian states, even more so than the miracle city of Bangalore. And I found the Muslims in Calicut to be the most forward looking of any Muslims I’ve ever encountered, outside of pockets in Turkey and those in North Tehran.

Their daughters were educated, free to pursue a love match–not an arranged marriage and not relegated to a very real purdah extant in many places in India. It’s the sort of place where a young Indian woman can have lunch with a strange foreign man and no one raises an eyebrow. I’m not sure how much of this is due to the fact that the area around Calicut has been integral to the global economy for two thousand years–ships have plied the monsoons from East Africa to the Malabar Coast since very early Roman times, bringing pepper an other spices to the West in exchange for gold, or how much of it is due to the tolerance between Hindus, Christians and Muslims. There is much more history to this area than meets the eye.

The Communist party has also run the state off and on since the fifties. Literacy rates are the highest in India. And basic health services deliverables are the highest in India, as well. When the state assumes the risk of healthcare and provides a very good basic education people are free to pursue other productive endeavors instead of grinding away in subsistence poverty and farming. The Dalits in the state, as well, have it better than anywhere in India. This makes a huge difference in upward mobility.

But even Kerala is beset by all the huge problems that India has. The infrastructure is crumbling. The rail system is overwhelmed, although thetrains in Kerala were the best in India outside of the Delhi-Agra tourist trains. And the pollution wasn’t nearly as pervasive as the rest of India. Overpopulation is a serious issue and so is gendercide. And as impressive as the quality of life is for women in the state is, it’s still a man’s state, run by men, for men. All that being said, were I ever to return to India–which is doubtful–the only place I would visit is Kerala.

Yes, I was a tourist in India. I’ve never claimed to be anything other than that. But the eyes don’t lie. What I saw was a very poor, under-devoloped and socially backwards country–moreso than even Cambodia and in many places as backwards as Africa. What makes it worse is this: it’s a horribly underdeveloped country with a very well-educated elite. An elite that sits atop a millenia old social structure. An elite that literally lives off the backs of those below it. And it’s the elite that buys the very minimal goods and services that India imports. One of the reasons India weathered the most recent economic crisis is that it’s imports are negligible. It relies on an internal market that deals in goods and services at a level of quality from the 50s, if not earlier in some cases.

If that’s a choice the Indians want to make, I’m all for it. I’m all about tEh noninterference. There is a queer element of genius to India’s social structure–institutionalizing as deviance any form of societal innovation. But let’s not build up a fantasy around the country. India has some emergent technology. But it’s at the elite level. There are few things that resemble a mall in India, something we Westerners take for granted. And the malls have security guards that prevent lower classes from entering. Seriously, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. That’s not economic freedom for the masses.

India has a problem-set of gargantuan proportions and is one of the most militarized countries I’ve ever seen–all the Gandhiesque posturing notwithstanding. That’s just reality.

If the rest of India could learn from Kerala it would be a vastly more impressive country than it now is. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.