Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Book Review: North of South by Shiva Naipaul

North of South by Shiva Naipaul
Some experiences defy description. For example, an LSD trip or the inexplicably surreal atmosphere a first-time traveller to Africa encounters. Imagine travelling to Africa, dropping a hit of acid and then later trying to describe the experience to someone who has done neither? In fact, Shiva Naipaul's book, North of South: An African Journey, has nothing to do with drugs. But he does a good job of capturing the incomprehensible absurdities that inevitably rain down on the heads of visitors to the dark continent.

In 1977, Naipaul had the idea of traveling to East Africa and writing about countries which had shaken off the shackles of colonialism. How had the politics of the new regimes affected the people? Had colonialism actually been good for Africa? What did the blacks, whites and browns (Asians) in Africa think about the state of affairs? It was a broad-brush outline in advance of his journey, and his publishers and editors were as leery of the relative lack of focus as he was himself.

The result is one of the most cynical and relentlessly unsympathetic accounts of the doomed nations and people of Africa that has ever been written. In short, just the kind of book I enjoy. Naipaul has the ability to quickly size up people he meets on his journey and deftly bludgeon them into memorable caricatures. The descriptions are larded with sarcasm and vicious wit, but more often than not, the absurd contrast between people's words and the apparent reality of the situation is enough to do the job. Naipaul puts everyone he meets through the wringer, regardless of colour, creed or social standing. At the time, Naipaul's book garnered some negative reviews, and he was labeled a racist by more than a few people. But if  anyone of any literary accomplishment were to write a similar book today, it would result in a tsunami of criticism and calls for career-ending sanctions.

I spent a year in Africa a few decades ago, and have also subsequently spent many years in various third-world countries. And so the descriptions in the book ring true. The invincible dishonesty, shamelessness and short-sighted, self serving behaviour that drag people and nations into a cesspool (largely) of their own making. The bizarre feeling that the people are like a race of vicious children who are forever amazed that they can create reality anew with each new lie as they attempt to cheat other human beings. The desire to be led by others and the willingness to believe every ridiculous, head-up-the-ass lie they are told. To live in such a society is to know that if someone with power enters a room with human shit smeared on his face, 99% of people present will act like nothing is out of the ordinary, and the other 1% will volunteer to lick the person's face clean in hopes of gaining some kind of benefit.

Naipaul begins his journey in Kenya and the ridiculous encounters begin immediately. Smirking, shamelessly corrupt immigration officials size up arriving passengers for potential bribes and offer cryptic answers to questions regarding visas and other regulations. Naipaul talks to expats who revel in mocking ignorant Africans, and has surreal run-ins with locals who try to cheat him. A running theme emerges: any relationship or interaction will necessarily provide one or both of the participants with the opportunity to lie, cheat or somehow take advantage, and the opportunity will rarely be passed up. Naipaul also offers some potted history of Kenya with references from books written by early colonialists as well as native writers. But the most entertaining parts of the book are the characters Naipaul describes. Here, he meets an African student:
So often when one is talking to Africans who seem thoroughly modern, something is said that suddenly jars; that brings one up short and makes one realize that not all is what it seems to be. I think, for instance, of the modishly dressed student who told me that he was "studying literature." I asked who his favourite writer was. He said he did not have one. 
"But," I said, "there must be some books, some kind of writing you particularly enjoy."
He shook his head. "I don't care much for reading," he said--not without pride.
Even in this day and age, 40 years after the book was written, the above passage rings true. Bizarro-world interactions like this are still part of life in third-world countries.

As with all non-fiction books, a reader will undoubtedly question the authenticity of the conversations Naipaul includes and the characters he meets. Are they mainly composite characters, or characters made up of whole cloth with the aim of constructing a certain kind of narrative? Almost without fail, the people are of a certain stock type, their absurdities seen clearly only by Naipaul. And yet, if real-life conversations were included in novels, they would be undreadable. So too, non-fiction dialogue is inevitably condensed and made more readable. It's impossible to know how many liberties Naipaul took, but at least he is consistent in ripping everyone he comes across. White settlers, black politicians, Asian shop keepers and white tourists all come in for a hardcore verbal kicking.

In this passage, he visits the British owners of a tea plantation in Kenya. After observing the way they exploit the locals for labour, Naipaul has this to say about their son:
Ralph did not have much to say for himself. He sat hunched over his food, head bent over his plate, masticating with noisy devotion. I watched him shovel meat and potatoes into his mouth. There was something degenerate, something savage about Ralph. In Africa, European civilization did not penetrate the second generation. 
Naipaul, an Indian from Trinidad and Tobago, returns repeatedly to the special loathing that many Africans seem to have for Asians. He meets an Indian family, the Mukerjees, during a trip to the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. The husband shares his views of himself with Naipaul and everyone else in the mini-bus:
"These people had never seen anything like it. They had no idea what to do with me--and I was wearing a dhoti, which confused them even more. Their trouble was that they didn't know the kind of man they were dealing with. They thought I was another spineless Asian who they could kick around like a football." He waved contemptuously at our Goan companions. "They must have thought I was like one of those. But I'm no Asian. Not by a long chalk. I'm an Indian national, and I showed them what a nasty customer I could be." He giggled. "I can be a very nasty man when I want to. I can turn very nasty indeed." 
For anyone who has travelled extensively, a certain strident, imperious, repellent type of individual comes to mind, and the belief that Naipual is being straight in his descriptions of characters and dialogue is strengthened.

But Naipaul reserves his greatest contempt for white tourists. If they happen to be female, his loathing reaches pathological and twisted levels. Here he describes a pair of young American women who share paid transport with him in the back of a pick-up truck:
I suspect, not without a certain amount of trepidation, that they regard me as a potential ally in their cold war with the others. They are hedged about with an aura of failure, of futility. I could see them being flung into jail on trumped-up charges, being swindled, being raped, even being murdered...nothing will ever go quite right for them.
From Tanzania, Naipaul makes his way down into Zambia before finally returning to Kenya. The characters he meets make this book well worth reading. But he also includes the requisite passages describing the awesome beauty of Africa. He also comments extensively on socialist government initiatives and the confused citizens who mouth the associated platitudes but never quite know where their countries are headed. He finishes the journey completely jaded and without hope for Africa:
Black and white deserved each other. Neither was worth the shedding of a single tear: both were rotten to the core. Each had been destroyed by contact with the other--though each had been destroyed in his own way.
As much as I enjoyed the book, I realize a certain type of commentary can grow wearing at times (a good lesson for many...), and perhaps would be more trying for other readers. And yet, the lack of niceties and the commitment to a book-length verbal assault on so many people and places is refreshing. I've never had the chance to read any of Shiva Naipaul's other books. He was the brother of the more famous writer, V.S. Naipaul, and yet, Shiva also produced a number of novels and non-fiction works in his relatively short life. In 1985, perhaps while gleefully hammering out more bilious descriptions of people and places on his typewriter, he slumped forward onto his desk and died of a heart attack. He was 40 years old.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Book Review: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
It's surprising that more people have not heard of Ryszard Kapuscinski. That's not to suggest that his books and essays are not well known. But he was such a skilled journalist and writer that he should be more widely read and celebrated.

Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist who arrived in Africa in the late 1950s to chronicle the political upheavals in numerous countries as colonialism started to unravel. Writing for Poland's state news agency, he would continue to visit Africa for extended periods and write about the invincible dysfunction in many of of the continent's most troubled locations for almost half a century. The Shadow of the Sun is a collection of his reportage and essays about Africa that span those nearly 50 years.

Translated from Polish, Kapuscinski's writing is at turns sparse, reflective and poetic. His detailed descriptions and shrewd insights highlight him as a keen observer capable of distilling the convoluted machinations of revolution and war into easy-to-follow accounts. The Shadow of the Sun is a great starting point for anyone wanting to learn about the culture and history of African countries. Or simply for anyone who enjoys beautifully written articles ('articles' is somehow too pedestrian a word--perhaps 'timeless accounts') about distant lands.

Because Kapuscinski was a journalist who wrote mainly about the politics of the places he visited, he isn't known as a travel writer. Yet his ability to vividly evoke a sense of place, bring characters to life, explain cultural habits and provide succinct, accurate historical background make his writing a must read for every novice travel writer. And, in fact, a number of the pieces in the book could qualify as travel writing, although some of them are preludes to subsequent pieces that focus on political strife.

Early on, Kapuscinski provides some unwitting advice to anyone who wants some quick insight into a place they are visiting:
In the morning I bought the local newspaper, Ashanti Pioneer, and set out in search of its editorial offices. Experience teaches that one can learn more passing an hour in such an office than in a week of walking around to see various institutions and notables. And so it was this time.
Readers who have traveled or lived in Africa, or in any third world country, will nod their heads in agreement at many of the observations. Here, Kapuscinski writes about a mini-bus driver and departure schedules:
"What do you mean, 'when'?" the astonished driver will reply. "It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up."
And in a related passage, he writes about punctuality in general:
In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon, but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, "When will the meeting take place?" makes no sense. You know the answer: "It will take place when people come."
Describing a bout of malaria:
The malaria attack is not merely painful, but like every pain also a mystical experience. We enter a realm about which a moment ago we knew nothing, though it now turns out that it had existed in us all the while, finally capturing and incorporating us: we discover within ourselves icy crevasses, chasms, and abysses, whose presence fills us with suffering and fear.
Probably the most prescient discussion about life in third world countries comes when  Kapuscinski relays the discussion he has with an Englishman in Ethiopia. The man talks about the culture of criticism that exists in Europe and laments the hypersensitivity of many people in Africa.
They consider all criticism to be a malevolent attack, a sign of discrimination, of racism, etc. Representatives of these cultures treat criticism as a personal insult, as a deliberate attempt to humiliate them, as a form of sadism even. If you tell them that the city is dirty, they treat this as if you said that they were dirty themselves, had dirty ears, or dirty nails. Instead of being self-critical, they are full of countless grudges, complexes, envies, peeves, manias. The effect of all this is that they are culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.
I've lived a good portion of my adult life in a third world country, and the above quoted passage perfectly sums up people's attitudes to criticism in this part of the world. Multiply that mentality times a thousand if an outsider dares to offer even mild criticism about his adopted home. I think this difference is also evident in humour. In Europe and North America, humour often revolves around mocking and ridiculing people with power. Here, humour is slapstick, men dressing up as women, and for the real connoisseurs, midgets.

Among Kapuscinski's detailed accounts of war and strife, the lengthy reportage on Rwanda and Liberia struck me as the most informative and memorable. Regarding the decades-old conflict in Rwanda that flared into holocaust numerous times, Kapuscinski evokes the physical setting, simply and eloquently describes the history and players and laments the hopelessness of it all.

The chapter about Liberia also provides some good history and describes the kind of surreal events that seem so commonplace in Africa. Kapuscinski reports on the fall of Liberian president, Samuel Doe in 1990. One of his former associates, Prince Johnson, puts together his own army and captures Doe. Johnson's followers videotape the macabre scene that plays out and Kapuscinski details the events that unfold in the video:
We see Johnson sitting and drinking beer. A woman stands next to him, fanning him and wiping the sweat from his brow. On the floor sits a bound Doe, dripping with blood. His face is so battered you barely see his eyes.
But Johnson just yells at Doe in a local creole dialect. It is impossible to understand most of what he says, except for one thing: he demands that Doe tell him his bank account number. Whenever a dictator is seized in Africa, the entire ensuing inquisition, the beatings, the tortures, will inevitably revolve around one thing: the number of his private bank account.
And sure enough, you can find the gruesome footage posted on YouTube (warning: not for the faint of heart).

A correspondent posted overseas in the same geographical region for many decades is almost a thing of the past. That's too bad, because the quality of insights and well-written accounts of people, their cultures and their political dramas that appear in The Shadow of the Sun is also becoming a relic of a bygone era.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Freak's Own: 9—Confirmation Bias

Freak's Own: 9

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Book Review: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?
Back in 2008 when Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism was published, it had a few hooks that ensured instant publicity. The first was the promise of exposing the life of a Lonely Planet guide-book writer on the road. The second was a whole lot of shameless behaviour depicted in the book, which was guaranteed to stoke one of the greatest of human past-times; judging other people. But most readers who make their way through the book are bound to ask the question: can someone who so casually discusses his corner-cutting, lying and criminal behaviour in pursuit of fulfilling his contract with Lonely Planet be trusted about anything he writes? Another question: does it really matter?

When the first promotional interviews and other pre-release publicity suggested that author Thomas Kohnstamm was not the only one of their writers spewing major amounts of horseshit regarding the locations he visited and the supposed research he conducted, Lonely Planet dutifully responded right on cue with unctuous, high-minded equivocating. What a shocker. You pay first-time writers meagre wages, impose unrealistic deadlines and provide little oversight, and the result is less than ethical behaviour. Instead of visiting every town and scouting out all the relevant hotels, restaurants and bars at every price point, some of the travelling facility inspectors re-write reviews from past editions, crib information online, pick other travellers' brains, and on occasion, make shit up.

Only the very naive cling to the belief travel guide-book writers have dream jobs. Of course, I have no problem believing that many of them have carved out a nice little niche for themselves. They've developed their own system for scoping out a new location and likely have little problem meeting deadlines and staying within their budgets. Perhaps most of them take a few shortcuts on occasion, while others play it as straight as they can. They make connections, write for various publications and one day they move on to another job within the industry. Or they do what they should have done in the first place; write their own travel book. Interestingly, Kohnstamm continued writing for Lonely Planet for years after the initial trip to Brazil, which is the focus of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. He provides no indication about whether he carried on with his "makin' up shit" approach to guide-book writing in those other locations.

As for the authenticity of many of the tales in the book--who can really say? However, I came to the conclusion that much of what Kohnstamm writes is embellished a great deal. And I am fairly confident that a number of events are undiluted horseshit of the highest grade. Casually deciding to become a drug dealer in a foreign country? Perhaps, but the emotions (and lack of) and the details he discusses in relation to that decision and the subsequent developments ring dead false to me. He probably thought he was quite clever in relating the entire apocryphal tale in such a way that he could later deny having done anything of the sort if anyone were to call him on it.

The passages regarding his escapades with various women in Brazil well may be true. Anyone who has done any amount of independent travelling knows that a certain kind of hedonistic experience can be had by just about anyone on the backpackers' circuit. However, many of the anecdotes about women sound as if they were written after polling members of the pick-up artist community regarding their most cringe-worthy fantasies. Bedding beautiful women and then developing an instant need to flee: check. Same women become enraged and try to cheat him financially only to have him best them in the end regarding money: check. Walking in on sleeping women whose breasts or other body parts are exposed, and then staring open-mouthed for a few creepy minutes: check. At least two examples of each of these categories appear in the book.

Of course, accurately reported incidents will also reflect patterns and tendencies, so perhaps everything regarding his interactions with women are only an insight into Kohnstamm's character. Come to think of it, there really are very few females Kohnstamm encounters about whom readers learn much besides what they look like and whether they are interested in casual sex. Oh, there is a graphic, painfully detailed scene in which a local Brazilian woman is brutally assaulted.

The male characters Kohnstamm chooses to highlight generally fall into male-fantasy territory as well. Drug fiends, drug dealers and the requisite James Bond character: a hard-case Israeli who dislocates the shoulder of a young pickpocket, casually discusses his mercenary past and dispatches with armed police in another incident that also involves Kohnstamm and which has the air of a comic-book fantasy about it.

The timeline of events is just a bit too pat as well; the good-natured first attempt at trying to visit all the destinations on the itinerary provided by Lonely Planet, and then the revelation (that was actually percolating all along) sparked by the jaded hotel owner who's hip to Kohnstamm's position as a guide-book writer.

I imagine that Kohnstamm wrote the book and realized that it just didn't quite have the appeal he had originally hoped. So he did some re-writing and packed it full of characters and narrative devices to spice it up. And what do you know? Here I am discussing many of those incidents he likely fabricated and in the process I'm providing validation for all the non-fiction writing fabulists out there. However, it might not have been such a bad thing as the sections of the book which take place in New York are dull as ditch-water and apparently involve no bullshit whatsoever. In his attempts to show how soul-destroying his existence in New York was before he accepted the job with Lonely Planet, he forgets that to accurately recreate such a reality is to put readers to sleep. Unfortunately, the sections that take place in New York make up at least 25% of the book.

If pressed about the liberal dollops of horseshit that found their way into his book, I have no doubt Kohnstamm would respond with some kind of clever, hipster rationalization that suggested he was angling for a certain effect and only the naive literalist would take everything he wrote seriously. Of course, most readers are willing to accept some exaggerations and the reorganizing of events in time to create a more entertaining book.

Regardless, I did find it to be quite a fast-paced, enjoyable read. On the other hand, I also liked many of the least sensational passages in which he writes about rolling into a new town and getting his bearings. Some of the minutiae related to actually doing his job as a guide-book writer were interesting as well. In this passage, he details some of the things he has to keep in mind when gathering information:
Lonely Planet would like 20 percent of the coverage going to budget, 60 percent to midrange, and 20 percent to top-end. I also need to keep in mind what a solo female traveler would want, what a disabled traveler would want, what a gay/lesbian /bisexual/transgender traveler would want, what a vegetarian or vegan would want, and I need to be sensitive to not write with a particularly American point of view. The company does not think that this will dilute the content or voice of the book.
I did a fair amount of backpacking many years ago and many of the emotions he experiences and the litany of different characters and situations really brought back some good memories. He riffs on the hypocrisy and absurdity of the constant search for pristine locations which become the new hot destination for backpackers only to evolve into over-developed cesspools full of angry, scheming locals and rich, sneering tourists.

Kohnstamm writes in a simple, straightforward way and avoids any attempts at literary flourishes. He appreciates the importance of scenes and characters in non-fiction writing and keeps the action moving along quite nicely for the most part. Unfortunately, the book is poorly edited. Not to the point of being rammed full of mistakes. But there are enough mistakes (typos, grammar mistakes, incorrect word usage when the word's homophone should have been used, to name a few) to make it annoying for anyone who expects a book to be well edited. In addition, Kohnstamm has some annoying writing habits, as almost every writer does. For example, one of his writing tics is to use "off of" when "off" alone would suffice (and would read much better).

If you want a relatively entertaining, quick read that chronicles some of the challenges of a travel guide-book writer mixed with tales of debauchery, you could do worse. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? was published almost 10 years ago. For a first-time author, the book seemed to do quite well. Yet, since then, nothing more from Kohnstamm. Perhaps the intake of illegal drugs and alcohol he describes in the book got the better of him. Or maybe he's turned to his real calling--fiction writing.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Book Review: Wild Coast by John Gimlette

Wild Coast
In Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, John Gimlette recounts three months spent travelling in Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. He travels extensively, interacts with many of the locals and provides historical background on the region.

It quickly becomes clear that potted histories will make up a large part of the book. Unfortunately, those are the least engaging passages (often stretching to numerous pages at a time). I often found my eyes glazing over as he detailed yet another instance of slaughter, uprising or unjust treatment of slaves. It's like the difference between wading through dry backstory and lively, engaging scenes when reading a novel.

At some point in writing the book, I believe Gimlette sensed this potential shortcoming as well, and so he utilizes some different methods in an attempt to spice up the narratives. For example, he occasionally switches to present tense and imagines what a particular historical figure may have experienced in certain situations instead of relying on dry summary. Some readers may find these sections enjoyable, but I just wasn't drawn into many of the stories.

In one chapter, Gimlette ventures to the location where the American preacher/cult leader Jim Jones and his followers set up the notorious Jonestown in the middle of the jungle. I've read a very good book about Jones and the build-up to the mass suicide/slaughter of over 900 people in 1978, which makes the retelling here particularly watered down and ineffective.

Of course, interspersed throughout the history lessons are descriptions of the places as they exist today. Gimlette provides contrasts to the way things were, and discusses the ways in which the past has shaped the present. Those passages can be quite entertaining.

Some annoyances crop up in Gimlette's writing. Like many good writers, he seems to forget, at times, about the importance of the good old-fashioned transition. Transitions between sentences, and between paragraphs. In this passage, he tells us about an important house in Georgetown. Yet, while I was reading, I wasn't quite sure about the details. Was it abandoned? Or was it a historical site preserved for tourists? If I had to bet, I'd go with the latter. But why not just bring the reader up to speed? If not at the beginning of the passage when he too is puzzled at the status of the house, at least clarify things after the fact.
The Red House was  grand and yet spartan, and covered in bristly crimson shingles. At first I though it was abandoned: the shutters were bolted, and the grass grew long in the yard. But then I noticed that the front door was open, and so I went inside.
After a while an Indian appeared.
It's never quite made clear who this Indian is.

Another related flaw: assumptions about how easily readers will lock onto his descriptions and actually know what the hell he is talking about. In this passage, Gimlette describes the architecture in Georgetown. No logical, realistic image rose up in my mind based on his description:
In a city of lacy buildings, this was the laciest of all. From the outside, it reminded me of a wedding dress, all spotlessly white and frilly.
Other times, the lack of information seems to be the result of poor editing. For example, here he writes about Jim Jones:
By 1963 he's head of the human rights commission, and his disciples assume a new name, the People's Temple Full Gospel Church.
Yet in the above sentence, I have no idea which particular "human rights commission" he is referring to.

A number of times, he mentions people with "blue" hair. I assume he means hair that is so black that it has a slight blue tinge. Maybe I'm being a stickler, but I would guess more than a few rubes reading the book would be left scratching their heads. More appropriate would be to explain that effect the first time he comments on "blue" hair and then in subsequent mentions it would be clear to everyone.

Similarly, more than a few times he uses metaphors that left me a bit perplexed. There's a fine line between using tired old metaphors and crafting good, original metaphors that are effective and easily understood.

Finally, while many of the here-and-now passages in the book were quite enjoyable to read, a certain sameness to many of the characters detracted from the believability. To be sure, he interacts with a wide variety of people from the towns and the countryside, from different ethnic groups and socioeconomic backgrounds. But inevitably they are almost all incredibly, nice people, or at the very least, honourable and genuine. Most of them are cast in the "unforgettable character" mold that stretches belief. I suppose it would be hard to get a glimpse of people's dark side in such a relatively short time, but still, some nuance would have been nice. It's not surprising then, that Gimlette offers up the occasional observation that can be classified as faux incredulity. In short, these passages say, it's hard to comprehend that such nice people should hail from countries that have undergone such turmoil.

Of course, Gimlette can write very well. In this short description, he highlights his literary skills and unwittingly includes a good criticism of his own writing:
As he talked he smoked, and his hands swooped around making vapour trails, like a dogfight in front of his face. He was thrillingly articulate but not always easy to follow.
Here is another paragraph in which he demonstrates his ability to describe settings in a vivid and evocative manner:
Eventually, at dusk, we reached the Burro-Burro River. It was like a streak of blackened glass sliding away, off through the trees. There, high on a bluff, we slung our hammocks and ate some chunks of catfish. It tasted of trout with an extra dollop of pond. Then we opened some rum, settled in our hammocks and waited for the show to begin.
Yet just as often there is an awkward turn of phrase or a built-in assumption that necessitates re-reading. For example:
She was round and exuberant, had a tattoo on her face and was dressed in a Guyanese flag. 
More explanation required. It sounds interesting. Is it an actual flag? If so, how is it fashioned into a garment? Or is it a t-shirt with an image of the flag on it? Or, is he trying to suggest that this woman is extremely proud of her country? The subsequent paragraphs don't seem to suggest that.

I have no doubt that many readers will enjoy Wild Coast. The sections which include histories of the places Gimlette visits may appeal to them a great deal. For me, the result was a book which I was never quite eager to return to after I started reading it. Also, as mentioned, the flaws in his writing became tiresome. At least one good re-write and some more editing would have produced a far better book. I believe that Gimlette saw some amazing things and was impressed by the incredible scenery and bloody history during his three-month journey. Unfortunately, because of his emphasis on the past and the shortcomings in his writing, I was never able to fully share his enthusiasm.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Freak's Own: 8

Freak's Own: 8

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book Review: And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On book cover
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, by Randy Shilts, details the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US. Shilts focuses on a number of different groups and highlights their negligence in providing the funding to research the disease and their shameless indifference and lack of urgency in alerting people to the dangers of the disease. Specifically, Shilts looks at politicians, the media, the scientific community, the blood industry and the people who were affected most by AIDS (gay men, intravenous drug users, and haemophiliacs and other blood transfusion recipients).

This book is written in the reportage style (appropriate, as Shilts was a reporter) that results in, what I believe, is the type of non-fiction book that most people find the most entertaining and readable. In other words, real-life characters are developed, situations and dialogue are recreated, and tension is built up, despite the fact that the majority of readers know, in general, how things play out in the tragic saga of the AIDS epidemic. Shilts made no attempt to be objective. He editorializes heavily, or as some like to call it, offers up the "muckraking" style of reportage. His blunt assessments and judgmental asides are quite enjoyable most of the time. And the method gains credibility by the fact that he lambastes everyone with (almost) equal vigour.

Shilts was a gay man and lived and worked in San Francisco as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. But, in And the Band Played On, he does not hesitate to go after many in the gay community for their stubborn refusal to alter their behaviour as details of how AIDS was spread came to light. As Shilts states a number of times, many gay men literally "fucked themselves to death." He also heaps hammer-blows of well-deserved criticism on owners of gay bath houses, which Shilts refers to as "biological cesspools," and provides the kind of stomach-churning details that may be too much for some readers (think Crisco and limbs disappearing up...well, you get the picture).

As a result, Shilts was vilified by many in various gay communities throughout the US. Still, I can't help but feel that in some ways, he didn't go far enough in his criticism. For example, as the book moves into the early 1980s and the first instances of blood transfusion AIDS cases surface, Shilts rightly rips the arrogant executives of the blood industry for failing to take action to properly screen donors.

Yet, Shilts indicates that, for whatever reason, gay men donate disproportionately more blood than most other demographics in the US. They apparently continued to donate heavily as questions about blood safety were raised, and Shilts even mentions a phenomenon that he claims to have existed among some gay men: that they continued to donate blood as if the very act was a way of convincing themselves that they couldn't possibly contract AIDS.

So surely the question will rise up in the minds of many readers: does the gay community, or at the very least those infected men who donated blood, not bear some culpability in the horrible deaths of the many innocent people who died as a result of tainted blood transfusions? But Shilts never really goes near this angle and instead reserves the majority of his wrath regarding tainted blood for the money-grubbing scumbags in the blood industry who were apparently more concerned about the costs of implementing new screening procedures than the possibility of heading off the impending disaster.

Similarly, while Shilts despises the rationalizations and self-serving excuse-making of many in the gay community and other politically correct enablers in society (he calls their mealy-mouthed bullshit "AIDS-speak"), at times he seems to veer into that same territory himself.

Also, Shilts cannot resist the urge felt by so many non-fiction writers and engages in some myth-making. This is with regards to an early AIDS patient named Gaetan Dugas who was labelled "patient zero" for the apparent fact that he infected so many other men through his reckless sexual activity. This notion of a patient who caused the disease to spread faster than it otherwise would have has largely been debunked.

The storyline of Dugas features quite significantly in the early part of the book, replete with apocryphal anecdotes of Dugas happily informing other gay men that he has just infected them with AIDS. Also, Shilts builds Dugas up as being attractive in some kind of otherworldly way. But a Google image search turns up photos of a relatively average-looking dolt. I believe that Shilts knew how such a narrative would appeal to so many people's sense of the sinister and so he ran with it. However, to be fair, some researchers at the time also floated this idea of "patient zero" and gave some credence to it.

Shilts and the characters in the book rail against and righteously bash various levels of government, with the federal government under Ronald Reagan coming in for the most well-deserved and complete pasting. It's hard to believe how short-sighted and petty the Republicans were and how many lives were lost (e.g., limited funds for research and nation-wide information campaigns) due to foot-dragging and sometimes outright hostility. Reagan did not utter the word “AIDS” publicly until about 1986 or 87.

The book is prescient in many ways, especially in debunking the early propaganda that heterosexuals in North America should fear AIDS in the same way that homosexual men eventually did. And the Band Played On was first published way back in 1987 but Shilts already saw that kind of talk (i.e., that non-drug-using heterosexuals were at risk to the same degree as intravenous drug users and gay men) as fear-mongering and an attempt to get more people concerned about the disease and thus increase government funding. This was a number of years before the one-man North American heterosexual male epidemic hit in the form of Magic Johnson and before such shrill proclamations by the likes of Oprah Winfrey that heterosexuals in the US would be devastated by the disease in the same way that gay men had been. Of course, that has never happened.

Finally, I don't believe what Shilts says regarding those who died of AIDS; that they were heroic in the way they died. People beset by tragedy cope in any way they can because there is no other choice. Just as the word "hero" is tossed around casually in war, the reality is that, just as with millions who have already perished from AIDS, a much better description is “tragic waste.” However, I agree that people who had AIDS and spent their remaining days risking arrest during protests and did everything in their power to increase awareness and funding deserve a great deal of praise.

Despite some of the criticisms mentioned above, And the Band Played On is an informative and epic chronicling of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the US and other parts of the world. While many people may have a general idea of how things transpired, they will undoubtedly learn a great deal about the disease and the numerous obstacles faced by scientists, activists and the people who were infected. Sadly, Shilts was diagnosed with AIDS and died in 1994. He leaves an impressive legacy with And the Band Played On.