I’d sighed after Nubia recounted this, and she’d asked me why I’d sighed. I told her that on all sides the dead were too many—on the side of the vanquished, on the side of the victors, on the side of those who’d never chosen sides. What good were sides? Who could ever hail themselves as triumphant while they still lived? Perhaps someday, I added, after all the dead have been counted , there will be one number for the living to ponder, though the number will never tell the full story of what has been lost.
Modern industrial capitalism carries a steep cost. The price of abundance is paid in blood by the people working in dangerous factories and living on the land where natural resources are extracted.
The latter is the premise of Imbolo Mbue’s novel How Beautiful We Were.
Kosawa is a remote village in an unnamed African country, one of eight in the valley. Everything changed when the American company Pexton discovered oil in the valley. Rather than bringing prosperity to Kosawa as promised, oil from Pexton’s pipeline seeped into groundwater. Children died. Pexton taught the people of Kosawa to boil water before using it, and children died.
How Beautiful We Were is something of a fractal of a novel.
In some ways it is a generational novel centered on the family of the young woman Thula. Her family doesn’t lead Kosawa, but they are prominent enough that when the village madman, Konga, forces the town to kidnap four Pexton men by stealing their car keys — the inciting incident of the novel — people look to her father and uncle Bongo for leadership rather than the village leader Woja Beki. After all, Woja Beki has benefited from Pexton’s largesse. Thula takes up their mantle in the subsequent generation, getting an education in the United States and becoming an activist in defense of her people and democracy.
In other ways it is a novel about a place. The beautiful lost place of Kosawa is brought to life by the inhabitants. When Thula leaves her homeland we see her through letters home to her childhood friends.
Still in other ways it is a novel of customs and structures, involving both the encroachment of foreign customs on a traditional village in the tradition of Things Fall Apart and the corrupt national government and first world companies that trample on those traditional customs. Thula and her friends fight back, of course, but their numbers are small.
All together, How Beautiful We Were is a story that is both powerful and sad. The people of Kosawa only want to live in their village as they always have. This is a village so remote, we are told, that the snatchers bypassed it entirely, leaving Thula’s grandmother Yaya to wonder:
Now, in my old age, I wonder, what song would they be singing if we’d been stolen and displaced and no one was left to tell our stories? The ones who were taken, where are their descendants now? What do these descendants know of their ancestral villages? What anguish follows them because they know nothing about men and women who came before them, the ones who gave them their spirit?
Nothing can save the people of Kosawa. When they accept Pexton, they die. When they fight, the soldiers come. Their attempts at raising awareness and marshaling outrage follow a depressingly predictable pattern of momentary outrage and performative contrition before the proceedings get bogged down in court and the general public moves on to the cause of the moment with the systems left unchanged.
Perhaps the most impressive part of How Beautiful We Were for me is how Imbolo Mbue has crafted a novel that is simultaneously specific and universal. It is set in a country presumably modeled on her native Cameroon, but the country is never named and the capital city is not found on any map. I tend not to like fictional countries in an otherwise “real” world. These countries, like Qumar in the West Wing, strike me as ahistorical palimpsests meant to dodge the implications of the story. Mbue avoids this trap by making Kosawa the center of this little universe. The nation state is coincidental here and matters only in so far as it establishes the asymmetrical power relationships that bear down on Kosawa. The country could be Cameroon, but it could just as easily be any other of a dozen East African countries. Likewise, the story here might be about an oil company, but it could just as easily be a logging company or a mining firm.
I found How Beautiful We Were to be a deeply moving story that captures the destructive underside of modern capitalism at the same time as it celebrates the people who live on that toxic ground. They live, even as they are dying.
I didn’t have much of a chance to write about what I’ve been reading last week because of other writing deadlines but the reading has continued. I finished (and plan to write about) Cal Newport’s A World Without Email, but also I have also read Ben Cohen’s The Hot Hand and the fifth volume of Neil Gaimon’s The Sandman. Most recently I finished Ilan Pappe’s The Biggest Prison On Earth, a history of the occupied territories in Israel. Pappe is a controversial figure and wrote this book as a condemnation of Israeli policy. While some of his strong stances might be said to be predetermined, that doesn’t mean that he’s wrong. This book uses Israeli government documents to argue that the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the apartheid-like security apparatus were not necessary retaliation against terrorist threats or accidents of right-wing governments, but the intended outcomes of Israeli government policy since the creation of the state.
I am now reading Andrea Stewart’s The Bone Shard Daughter, a compelling debut fantasy novel set on a floating archipelago in an endless sea. I am particularly taken by the setting, which features a long-standing empire that claims its legitimacy because the royal defeated an earlier generation of powerful and destructive beings and they now protect the people, except that the royal institutions also enforce a policy where they harvest bone shards taken from the skulls of the people that are then used to power constructs, slowly draining the life force from the person that shard belongs to. Some people die in the process of collecting shards; everyone dies sooner than they otherwise would if their shard is used. The people aren’t happy.