Friday, December 5, 2014

Empire and Its Spoils

Define an empire by its destruction. How many people must die? Hundreds? Thousands? How many cities destroyed? How much culture lost? The Hagia Sophia rumbled into dust by the nip of a single flea, and... No. Hagia Sophia is still there, in mosque form. So is Constantinople. (Istanbul, not Constantinople.) This is the problem with Justinian's Flea by William Rosen. Mr. Rosen argues that the bubonic plague was a significant contributor to the downfall of Rome in late antiquity. Okay. That was one sentence. What about the other nine hours? (I listened to the audiobook.) We begin with Justinian leaving a hick town in the Balkans to join his uncle in Constantinople and, after a jump, and he's emperor. His wife Theodora ascends from theatrical prostitute to empress along an equally obscure path. There's loads of topics: the rise of Christianity, the Aryan heresy, the Hagia Sophia, Goths, and Justinian's Code, which is a founding pillar of modern law and the second best part of the book. But tying it all together in a relatively short book with a plague-based thesis doesn't work well. If I was already on cuddly terms with late antiquity, Justinian's Flea would be a new perspective on an old friend, but this is the first time I've read up on the Roman world circa 450 and all I got were brief sketches on huge topics, until the plague fells a third of everybody. Yes, it contributed to social and economic instability and population movements already exacerbating the problems of a crippled empire, but Rosen doesn't have much to say about its direct effects.

The best part of the Justinian's Flea is two discs devoted to the science of the plague flea: from the evolution of bacteria to the flea's mad need to bite anything as it starves to death. In the last third of the book, the plague is rarely invoked as Justinian's reign winds down. The plague was a factor in the decline of a declining empire, but few conclusions are drawn, unlike in 1491, where Charles C. Mann compellingly argues that the arrival of Europeans and their diseases in the Americas likely killed off twenty percent of Earth's human population and reduced the descendants of urban and farmer MesoAmerica to a culturally impoverished wanderings in the newly unmanaged wilderness, where Europeans assumed they had been since the dawn of time and tried to genocide these survivors. Kathleen Born mentioned this book, and then Edward referenced it, so I knew it must be good. Highlights: Peruvian cities contemporary to the rise of Sumer, many cities in Southern Mexico, big urban complex at Cahokia. Extensive farming, extensive burning, extensive land clearing, extensive soil maintenance techniques. The Amazon may have been densely populated and managed as orchard. Also, Native Americans did not walk from Beringia to populate the Americas between an anomalous gap in the glaciers; they probably had boats. Everybody has boats. The Europeans were hopelessly filthy and undereducated and they had boats. Mann occasionally takes the popular archeological writer's low road and recaps the archeological spats of the 1800s. Archeologists spent whole decades and scientific journals sniping at each, and their exploits are more easily chronicled than people whose only surviving records are stones and pottery. But Mann cleverly uses the egos of archeological discovery to demonstrate how extremely likely theories of the pre-Columbian Americans were ignored for decades after being shot down by grand old men who disagreed with them. Reading 1491 is both excellent and mandatory. The effects of successive European plagues on the people of the Americas were, of course, compounded by waves of European colonizers, violent and otherwise, but to clock the effects of European colonization on an indigenous population not decimated by Old World diseases, we must turn to South Africa and The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (reinvented as the 2004 film Bustin' Bonaparte, the movie that inspired whiners on Amazon to give it no stars because it's not about talking animals). My pen pal Peter recommended the pants off this book and I am deeply sorry that I didn't like Story of an African Farm as much as he does. As soon as he recommended it, I downloaded it off Librivox, and started listen-reading. It does have merit, but it also has rough patches and serious issues. The book opens on a bleak landscape of red dirt and stunted shrubs that is, somehow, also a working farm. Three children are playing hide and seek in the emptiness of the vast African plain, and over the next few chapters the reader slowly realizes that farm's isolation is relative to the dozens of farm employees of who live onsite but are native Africans and don't count. The farm is an indisputable hole and the people who live on it are bound by poverty and notions of their own superiority. Em and Lyndell are English children. English being the best race. Lesser in ethnic virtue are Otto, the kind Christian farm manager, and his son Waldo. Tant Sannie is a fat Boer who owns the place and is inferior to other white people, but she is better than the Hottentots, who are better than Kafirs, who aren't allowed indoors. Lyndell is the mind, Em the body, and Waldo the spirit.

TSoaAF is divided into two parts: Childhood and sort of a bildungsroman, divided by a looooooooong, second person meditation on a child's religious awakening. Childhood is mostly the story of a bad man named Bonaparte Blankins who turns up on the farm and bamboozles the adults into thinking he's an English peer and relative that other Bonaparte. The kids are onto him, but he's only busted when Tant Sannie's younger, prettier niece turns up and he proposes to her while Tant Sannie is stuck in the attic, because she's fat.

In the second, less frustrating, part of the book, everyone is in the later stages of adolescence. It took me a while to notice that Em wasn't the cleverest ostrich in the ostrich camp because I am always rooting for Em people, but Em is fat and sad now. There's apparently tension between the African appreciation for the voluptuous woman and the English antipathy towards it. In any case, Emma is huffing and puffing and hoping someone will turn up and marry her. Waldo goes off to seek his fortune and remains a steady moral compass and a person of simple beauty and compassion. Lyndell has been away at school and then comes back with new ideas about womanhood and rights and oppression. She has a lot of dialogue. There's one moving feminist speech, in particular, which completely blows apart when she compares something to a Hottentot with no ability to see beauty, or think. Yikes. Lyndell refuses to marry the man she wants to marry out of principle and fornicates, thus slowly dying from complications related to childbirth. The new farm manager, who also loves her, travels to the veldt and spends months cross dressing to nurse her. So there. It's not a bad book if you can get over the appalling racism. South Africa didn't get over its appalling racism until the 1980s. There were many moments of wonder. Waldo and his father are beautiful souls. I learned more about South Africa than I knew before, although I did meet the director of the Capetown Y once. Also, South Africa has penguins. Olive Schreiner does not mention penguins. The atheist declamations may have been a little to much for audio; it might be better to read this in paper book. The story of childhood on the barren outskirts of the British Empire is night and day to the childhoods of middle class British because, "A British nanny must be a general. The future empire lies within her hands. And the person that we need to mold the breed is a nanny who can give commands." I hated Mary Poppins, the book, so much. A customer has been calling every week asking for Mary Poppins on Cherry Tree Lane and the other, later ones in the series that nobody ever gets to. We don't have any, but she keeps calling, because someone told her once to keep calling and they may come in eventually, which is strictly true, but for the much harder to find titles, you're going to save yourself years by ordering them online. So I started complaining about Mary Poppins by P.J. Travers because I'm still traumatized, and Missie said, "Another British nanny book... Nanny McPhee movie... Emma Thompson... on the shelf," and the next thing I knew, she was bringing it to me. So I had to read Nurse Matilda. It is not in any way called Nanny McPhee, but it is quite good. Basically, the Brown children are very naughty so Mrs. Brown hires Nurse Matilda to sort them out. When she arrives, they are being simply horrid, and Nurse Matilda thumps her stick and they all have to keep doing whatever naughtiness they're doing until it becomes simply awful and they're immune to doing it again. For example, they eat too much porridge and jam and buns and bad-for-you things at breakfast, and Nurse Matilda thumps her stick and the children keep eating and eating until their insides are filled with porridge and they all have stomachaches. There's an impossible number of children, big ones, little ones, and the Baby. Nanny McPhee does become prettier as the book progresses, but doesn't marry a widowed Colin Firth, which Missie says is a thing in the movie. I tried reading the next book in the series because the book Missie handed me was three Nurse Matilda books in one volume, but you can't read the same book twice in a row, deserving though it may be.

And our final book on empire is about the gays, because they're taking over. Gay marriage is legal in Minnesota now, and I'm single. Coincidence? I think not. Laura, who is gay and married, recommended The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher on audio and I took her up on it because she has good taste when she's not reading hillbilly incest threesome erotica. The titular family Fletcher happens to have two dads and four kids who happen to be white, black, East Indian, and of the Irish race, respectively. TMotFF does a good job of not beating the reader over the head with an inclusivity stick; it's more an ensemble piece on the travails of late elementary school. Sam is cool, but he wants to be in the school play. Jax's best friend turned cool and left him behind. Eli is going to the smart kids school but he hates it. And Frog has a friend who everyone thinks is imaginary. Plus, Jax needs to interview a veteran for his school project and the grouchy Vietnam vet next door hates all of them, probably because they're a multiracial, rainbow family, but also because they're loud and their balls keep knocking over his daffodils. Minus points for occasional, inexplicable sexist comments, but overall solid middle-grade book.

In conclusion, our shared legacy of twined empire and bondage rages in our breasts, in the endless conflict between government and governed, citizen and state, bread and circus, master and slave. What threads can we unravel from the sweater of time? What conclusions can we draw from reading five books?

Disease is fatal for empire. (Justinian's Flea)

Disease is benign to super for empire. (1491, Nurse Matilda)

Europeans are historically racist but can improve. (1491, Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, Story of an African Farm)

Empire brings civilization to the savages. (The Story of an African Farm, Justinian's Flea)

The savages had civilization and you ruined it. (1491, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher)

People die. (The Story of and African Farm, The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher)

Lots of people die. (Justinian's Flea)

Everyone dies. (1491)

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