The world could learn something from June’s selection—from ethics to economics and our exploding populationby Raymond Tallis / May 22, 2013 / Leave a comment
“Sentence for sentence, [James] Salter is the master,” Richard Ford says of the 87-year-old author of All That Is (Picador, £18.99). Perhaps he is. “The emptiness of things rose like the sound of a choir making the sky bluer and more vast” is certainly arresting. But above the level of the sentence, this engaging tale of a book editor, a survivor of the Pacific theatre of the Second World War, “in a world of dinners, deals, and literary careers,” is strangely unmemorable. I wanted to know what happened next in the hero’s 40 year search for true love but soon forgot what happened last. Beautifully written, artfully constructed, it passed through me like water through sand.
Novels that mirror the contingency of life are at risk of becoming part of that contingency. The risk is greater with travel books where the accidental and the unforeseen is the point, though destinations give the narrative direction. Paul Theroux’s The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola (Hamish Hamilton, £11.99), however, is absorbing and leaves its mark. You have to forgive his irritating superiority to his own tribe—“confined in stagnating cities like caged monkeys”—generalisations about humankind such as that “the best of them are bare-assed” and cynicism about “the virtue industry” of NGOs, though he confesses to being impressed on occasions “by the inspired meddling of outsiders.” The reward is to be taken into the interstices of an infinitely varied continent and the often appalling, but occasionally surprisingly rich, lives lived beneath the net of conceptions we mobilise when thinking about “Africa.” The unmitigated horror of his destination, Angola—a country of “cheated, despised, unaccommodated people” where oil billions have simply deepened the distance between “the governing rich and their parasitic friends, and the poor who live without hope”—is a reminder of world below the tourist radar and a warning against optimism based on measures of economic growth.
One reason for fearing that human life in the future may be more like Angola than Stow-on-the-Wold is that we are too numerous and “the algae-bloom-like explosion of humanity” may deliver a world population of over 10bn and rising by 2100. In his brilliant and persuasive Population 10 Billion: The Coming Demographic Crisis and How to Survive It (Constable & Robinson, £8.99), Danny Dorling argues for a “practical possibilitism” that rejects both the “rational optimism” of those who think that greed and…