Daily Archives: 3 March 2006

Pamuk’s Brueghelian Prose

They headed north to … the poorest neighborhoods. The houses were shanties made of stone, brick, and corrugated aluminum siding. With the snow continuing to fall, they made their way from house to house: Serdar Bey would knock on a door, and if a woman answered he would ask to see the man of the house, and if Serdar Bey recognized him he would say in a voice inspiring confidence that his friend, a famous journalist, had come to Kars all the way from Istanbul to report on the elections and also to find out more about the city—to write, for example, about why so many women were committing suicide—and if these citizens could share their concerns, they would be doing a good thing for Kars. A few were very friendly, perhaps because they thought Ka and Serdar Bey might be candidates bearing tins of sunflower oil, boxes of soaps, or parcels full of cookies and pasta. If they decided to invite the two men in out of curiosity or simple hospitality, the next thing they did was to tell Ka not to be afraid of the dogs. Some opened their doors fearfully, assuming, after so many years of police intimidation, that this was yet another search, and even once they had realized that these men were not from the state, they would remain shrouded in silence. As for the families of the girls who had committed suicide (in a short time, Ka had heard about six incidents), they each insisted that their daughters had given them no cause for alarm, leaving them all shocked and grieved by what had happened.

They sat on old divans and crooked chairs in tiny icy rooms with earthen floors covered by machine-made carpets, and every time they moved from one house to the next, the number of dwellings seemed to have multiplied. Each time they went outside they had to make their way past children kicking broken plastic cars, one-armed dolls, or empty bottles and boxes of tea and medicine back and forth across the way. As they sat next to stoves that gave out no heat unless stirred continuously, and electric heaters that ran off illegal power lines, and silent television sets that no one ever turned off, they heard about the never-ending woes of Kars.

SOURCE: Snow, by Orhan Pamuk (Vintage, 2004), pp. 11-12 (Read chapter 1 here.)

In under 500 words, Orhan Pamuk limns a complex Brueghelian landscape of social as well as material relations.

Leave a comment

Filed under literature, Turkey

Back in Ashikaga Again

I’m now back in Ashikaga, Japan. After a long flight, I cleared customs at Narita in time to get the 15:15 long-distance bus direct to Ashikaga (for only ¥4300!), arriving by 18:00 after only one stop at the Sano Premium Outlet Mall. The traffic was slowest on the dogleg through northeastern Tokyo (past Disneyland), but nearly as bad on strip-mall-lined National Route 50 between Sano and Ashikaga at rush hour. My wife and I celebrated by going out to eat at our favorite local fish (and fine sake) restaurant: うおえ (魚恵)—although I had buta kakuni ‘braised pork belly’ as insurance against the cold in our underheated apartment. We were the only customers at the counter (February is their slowest month) and got to chat with the sushi chef, who learned his trade in San Francisco and Maui.

In the airport waiting for departure I started reading Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, one of the best I’ve read in a long, long time. During one passage of highly charged conversation that I was reading today, I suddenly recalled my similarly intense engagement with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain during the first month or so of my time studying Romanian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Here’s one short summary of Mann’s opus:

A young bourgeois man visits his cousin in a mountain sanitarium where he ‘falls ill’ and struggles with the opposing forces of rationalism, faith, aestheticism, and common sense embodied by the other patients before rushing into World War I. The novel depicts the various cultural and intellectual currents swirling around in the soul of pre-World War I Europe.

And here’s how Publisher’s Weekly summarizes Snow:

A Turkish poet who spent 12 years as a political exile in Germany witnesses firsthand the clash between radical Islam and Western ideals in this enigmatically beautiful novel. Ka’s reasons for visiting the small Turkish town of Kars are twofold: curiosity about the rash of suicides by young girls in the town and a hope to reconnect with “the beautiful Ipek,” whom he knew as a youth. But Kars is a tangle of poverty-stricken families, Kurdish separatists, political Islamists (including Ipek’s spirited sister Kadife) and Ka finds himself making compromises with all in a desperate play for his own happiness. Ka encounters government officials, idealistic students, leftist theater groups and the charismatic and perhaps terroristic Blue while trying to convince Ipek to return to Germany with him; each conversation pits warring ideologies against each other and against Ka’s own weary melancholy. Pamuk himself becomes an important character, as he describes his attempts to piece together “what really happened” in the few days his friend Ka spent in Kars, during which snow cuts off the town from the rest of the world and a bloody coup from an unexpected source hurtles toward a startling climax. Pamuk’s sometimes exhaustive conversations and descriptions create a stark picture of a too-little-known part of the world, where politics, religion and even happiness can seem alternately all-consuming and irrelevant. A detached tone and some dogmatic abstractions make for tough reading, but Ka’s rediscovery of God and poetry in a desolate place makes the novel’s sadness profound and moving.

Sure enough, in an author interview posted by Random House, Pamuk mentions Mann as one of his major influences.

AAK: Who are some of the writers and artists who have influenced you?

OP: I am forty-eight, and at this age the idea of influence makes me nervous. I’d rather say that I learn and pick-up things from other authors. I’ve learned from Thomas Mann that the key to pleasures of historical fiction is the secret ar[t] of combining details. Italo Calvino taught me that inventiveness is as important as history itself. From Eco, I’ve learned that the form of the murder mystery can be gracefully used. But I have learned most from Marguerite Yoursenar; she wrote a brilliant essay about the tone and language in historical fiction.

Leave a comment

Filed under Japan

Great-Leap vs. Piecemeal Poverty Reduction

A week ago, LaurenceJarvikOnline noted the forthcoming appearance of a new book by former World Bank senior economist William Easterly with the provocative title, White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin, 2006): “An informed and excoriating attack on the tragic waste, futility, and hubris of the West’s efforts to date to improve the lot of the so-called developing world, with constructive suggestions on how to move forward.”

The ironies are many: We preach a gospel of freedom and individual accountability, yet we intrude in the inner workings of other countries through bloated aid bureaucracies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank that are accountable to no one for the effects of their prescriptions. We take credit for the economic success stories of the last fifty years, like South Korea and Taiwan, when in fact we deserve very little. However, we reject all accountability for pouring more than half a trillion dollars into Africa and other regions and trying one “big new idea” after another, to no avail. Most of the places in which we’ve meddled are in fact no better off or are even worse off than they were before. Could it be that we don’t know as much as we think we do about the magic spells that will open the door to the road to wealth?

Jarvik also tracks down Easterly’s scathing review last year of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities of Our Time, by Jeffrey Sachs (Penguin, 2005):

The climax of The End of Poverty is Sachs’s far-reaching plan to end world poverty — a sort of Great Leap Forward. His characteristically comprehensive approach to eliminating world poverty derives from his conviction that everything depends on everything else — that, for instance, you cannot cure poverty in Africa without beating AIDS, which requires infrastructure, which requires stable government, and so forth.

Social reformers have found two ways to respond to this complexity; Karl Popper summed them up best a half-century ago as “utopian social engineering” versus “piecemeal democratic reform.” Sachs is the intellectual leader of the utopian camp. To end world poverty once and for all, he offers a detailed Big Plan that covers just about everything, in mind-numbing technical jargon, from planting nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees to replenish soil fertility, to antiretroviral therapy for AIDS, to specially programmed cell phones to provide real-time data to health planners, to rainwater harvesting, to battery-charging stations and so on. Sachs proposes that the U.N. secretary general personally run the overall plan, coordinating the actions of thousands of officials in six U.N. agencies, U.N. country teams, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Sachs’s Big Plan would launch poor countries out of a “poverty trap” and end world poverty by 2025, as the book’s title advertises. The world’s rich countries would pay for a large share of the Big Plan — somehow doing an exact financial “Needs Assessment,” seeing how much poor country governments can pay and then having rich donors pay the rest. The donors will fill what he calls the “financing gap” by doubling donor-nation foreign aid in 2006, then nearly doubling it again by 2015.

What’s the alternative? The piecemeal reform approach (which his book opposes) would humbly acknowledge that nobody can fully grasp the complexity of the political, social, technological, ecological and economic systems that underlie poverty. It would eschew the arrogance that “we” know exactly how to fix “them.” It would shy away from the hubris of what he labels the “breathtaking opportunity” that “we” have to spread democracy, technology, prosperity and perpetual peace to the entire planet. Large-scale crash programs, especially by outsiders, often produce unintended consequences. The simple dreams at the top run afoul of insufficient knowledge of the complex realities at the bottom. The Big Plans are impossible to evaluate scientifically afterward. Nor can you hold any specific agency accountable for their success or failure. Piecemeal reform, by contrast, motivates specific actors to take small steps, one at a time, then tests whether that small step made poor people better off, holds accountable the agency that implemented the small step, and considers the next small step.

What’s the evidence on how well the two approaches work? Sachs pays surprisingly little attention to the history of aid approaches and results…. Spending $2.3 trillion (measured in today’s dollars) in aid over the past five decades has left the most aid-intensive regions, like Africa, wallowing in continued stagnation; it’s fair to say this approach has not been a great success. (By the way, utopian social engineering does not just fail for the left; in Iraq, it’s not working too well now for the right either.)

Meanwhile, some piecemeal interventions have brought success. Vaccination campaigns, oral rehydration therapy to prevent diarrhea and other aid-financed health programs have likely contributed to a fall in infant mortality in every region, including Africa. Aid projects have probably helped increase access to primary and secondary education, clean water and sanitation. Perhaps it is also easier to hold aid agencies accountable for results in these tangible areas.

Leave a comment

Filed under Korea

T. G. Ash on the Global Madness over Sacred Cows

Timothy Garton Ash opines on the “creeping tyranny of the group veto” in Thursday’s Guardian:

The animal rights campaign has something in common with the extremist reaction to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, as seen in the attacks on Danish embassies. In both cases, a particular group says: “We feel so strongly about this that we are going to do everything we can to stop it. We recognise no moral limits. The end justifies the means. Continue on this path and you must fear for your life.” I don’t claim that the two cases are strictly comparable. Human lives are saved by medicines developed as a result of tests on animals; no comparable good is achieved by the republication of cartoons of the prophet. But the mechanism of intimidation is very similar, including the fact that it works across frontiers and is therefore hard to tackle by national laws or law enforcement agencies.

If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies. But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom. That, I think, is what is happening to us, issue by issue. These days, you can’t even read a list of the British war dead in Iraq outside the gates of No 10 Downing Street without getting a criminal record. Inch by inch, paragraph by paragraph, we are becoming less free.

Let me now make a shocking leap in the argument. If you agree with me so far, and believe that reason requires consistency, then you should want David Irving let out of his Austrian prison and Ken Livingstone let off with a rap over the knuckles. Why? Because the fateful tendency in all this is to reject everyone else’s group taboos while obstinately defending your own. The result is indefensible double standards. In the case of Irving, and the much less serious one of Livingstone, I have been struck over the past few weeks by the contorted equivocations of my own group – by which I mean, roughly speaking, liberal Europeans and English-speaking persons who believe (as I do) that the Nazi Holocaust of the European Jews was the greatest single crime of the last century and should be a foundation-stone of today’s moral consciousness across the world.

via Peaktalk

Leave a comment

Filed under religion