It has been so long since I read a novel that I genuinely cannot remember the last one I read. I love non-fiction, and I see now that I had fallen into a trap, believing that non-fiction was superior to fiction when it comes to understanding the world. It’s an understandable impulse, especially when I consider all the things I want to know and the limited time I have to learn about them. After reading just two pages of Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul’s widely acclaimed 1979 novel, I could sense just how much my non-fiction binge had dulled my ability to see different perspectives and put myself in someone else’s shoes.
In this case, that someone else is Salim, a merchant living in an unnamed central African country in the mid-20th century, whose own story is told parallel to the broader tale of post-colonial Africa. Salim’s family descends from the diasporic peoples of the Indian Ocean; for centuries they live as well-to-do merchants in an African country that had been conquered first by the Arabs and then by the Europeans. Salim has the misfortune of living during a period of political change. With European power in Africa waning, indigenous rural Africans are taking control of their own destiny, remaking society, destroying the past – and, in the process, creating tremendous economic opportunities and risks for traders such as Salim. Salim turns out to be one of the few prescient ones in his family; understanding how fundamentally fragile their position is, he decides to leap at a business opportunity deep in the bush to build a new life for himself, knowing his family’s old life will not endure.
Salim’s story makes this book worth reading in its own right. As both the protagonist and lens through which the reader encounters this fictional African country, he is a thoughtful, complex and painfully human character. The best praise I can offer is that Naipaul succeeded in creating a character the reader wants to simultaneously root for and despise. But what makes this book truly exceptional is the way that Salim’s story is told alongside that of the fictional African country to which he ventured. Salim’s business grows as the country grows; indeed, his little town eventually booms and offers a compelling and optimistic microcosm for a new idea of Africa. And then, the old Africa reasserts itself with a vengeance, laying waste to everything Salim worked so hard to build. The very ideas that sustained the boom sow the revolution that follows. The belief that Africa is on the verge of becoming something new ends with the realization of what Africa really is: a disjointed, diverse, tribal environment awoken from the sleepy stability and subjugation of foreign rulers without any clear sense of purpose besides, perhaps, revenge.
What was most striking to me was the similarity between Naipaul’s description of attitudes about Africa in the post-colonial period and those of today. There’s a kind of mythology surrounding Africa, this huge, wild place, a land of endless resources, a continent that will be responsible for most of the world’s population growth in the coming decades and at last ready to be master of its own fate. And here is the crux of the whole narrative, where the human capacity to believe what one wants to believe intersects with reality. None of us are masters of our own fate. There is no such thing as “Africa.” These are beliefs we develop to make ourselves feel like we are in control of vicissitudes decidedly outside of our control. They are ideas we develop to make sense of something far too big and complex to comprehend or reduce to a single word. We can’t live or process history without these beliefs, but we also can’t seem to resist presenting these heuristic tools as the ultimate truth, and that’s our downfall.
It is impossible to generalize about Africa in any meaningful way. Like any continent, Africa is full of different people living in different places, all of whom are there for different reasons. The most surefire way to misunderstand Africa is to project onto it our ideas and hopes about what politics, civilization and all the rest of it mean. Naipaul’s great success in this novel is that he tells the story of both Salim and a small African town without ever succumbing to reductionist explanations about why things are the way they are and without any ideological veneer about how things should be. By telling the story of a single merchant and a single town with so little pretense, Naipaul captures a purer distillation of truth than even the most accurate recitation of events and dates and leaders ever could. Unsurprisingly, it is Naipaul himself who puts it best. “Fiction never lies: it reveals the writer totally.”
Jacob L. Shapiro, director of analysis
A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment
By Stephane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell
There’s no reason geopolitics can’t taste good. In fact, after reading “A Bite-Sized History of France,” I am of the opinion that all books about history should involve food, and the reader should have a pairing of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Brillat-Savarin on hand.
Each bite-sized chapter (they’re only a handful of pages long) is centered around some French gastronomic quirk or treasure, and they come with edible titles: “Barbarians at the Plate,” “The Wine That Got Away,” “The Cheese of Emperors and Mad Kings,” “A Revolutionary Banquet” – you get the idea. Stephane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell use these morsels to help tell the story of the rise and fall of the French state. In the process, they explain in delectable detail how icons of French cuisine, from Roquefort to the baguette, came to define not only the French kitchen but French identity.
Two components of that identity are particularly compelling. First, French gastronomy is defined not by the bistros of Paris but by the traditions and family kitchens of its provinces. Accordingly, the authors show how changes in France’s diverse provinces changed the course of French history itself. It is in this grand tour that we sample the French appellation d’origine controlee – the framework created to “identify and regulate geographically defined foods and wines.” (Americans may be familiar with some of the most famous AOCs, like champagne.) All of these “terroirs” are the providence of not only some of “France’s best and most popular products” but some of the greatest upheavals in French history. Tiny or obscure hamlets and regions have propelled French trade with the outside world, Protestant and communist uprisings, and the projection of French colonial power.
To the last point, the authors explain that “many elements believed to be ineffably French – the wines and liqueurs, the pastries and chocolates, the flavors of Provence – are not native to France but arrived upon its shores over the centuries and were gradually absorbed.” It is staggering and humbling to realize just how much of France’s cuisine, often portrayed to be just as French as the Eiffel Tower or a beret, was born of the assimilation of peoples and cultures from the Middle East, Africa and the New World.
Of course, French gastronomic history has more than its share of bitter moments – the slave trade that drove the rise of confectionery, the invasion of the American phylloxera parasite that nearly wiped out the French wine industry (quelle horreur!), or the massacre and consumption of Paris’ zoo animals when the Prussians laid siege to the capital. Nonetheless, that bitterness is part of the larger story of France’s restive geopolitical past and part of the legacy of its exceptional cuisine. Bon appetit!
Emma Pennisi, editor