Monday, 20 March 2017

Book Review - My crowded solitude by Jack McLaren

My crowded solitude by Jack McLaren

Melbourne: Sun Books, 1967    (first published 1926)

I came upon this book in a batch of books belonging to one person: in fact this particular batch of books belonging to one person contained two copies of this book (different editions), which piqued my interest. That, and the fact that it was a Sun Book - with their history of publishing lost Australian texts - led me to read it.

This book is the story of Jack McLaren's eight years spent in Cape York establishing a coconut plantation. He found the location himself after some exploration, and landed in 1911 to begin work. The book contains some anecdotes of life in the jungle, but mostly deals with McLaren's relationship with the local Aboriginal tribe, on whose land he created his plantation. The tribe was mostly untouched by white men until McLaren's arrival, apart from occasional dealings with pearlers and other ships.

McLaren's relationship with the tribe goes through ups and downs. It takes him a while to understand the native way of life, and his attempts to get them to work after the manner of Europeans are doomed to failure. The first year he spends on the plantation has him adapting to the Aborigines, and they to him. When in the dry season they move down the coast, he is left alone for fourteen weeks, in which time he realises what it truly means to be lonely. When the tribe comes back not only is McLaren glad to see them, the Aboriginals are happy to be back within reach of white man's flour and tobacco. After that first year, never again does the whole tribe move - as McLaren writes "It did not occur to me that the natives were happier as they were. It did not occur to me that the creating in them of needs and desires hitherto utterly foreign would also create in them the necessity for satisfying those needs and desires, to the consequent destruction of the more or less complacent ease of their existence."

The book not only goes into the politics of McLaren's relationship with the tribe, but also describes some of their customs and beliefs: McLaren was aware enough that many of the explanations he was given for such activities were hiding the real reasons or meanings to the actions, but he was astute enough not to pry further.

McLaren was an inveterate wanderer before he "settled down" on his plantation, and while at first visits from fellow whites were few, he eventually became an object of interest and various anthropologists, ornithologists, missionaries and adventurers came to stay with him for shorter or longer periods. As knowledge of his position became more known, he started to get correspondence from all around the World.

Eventually McLaren's wanderlust got the better of him and he sold up and left, but not before gathering enough material to provide us with this little gem of pioneering days in Queensland.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Friday, 17 March 2017

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano

Gomorrah by Roberto Saviano, translated from the Italian by Virginia Jewiss

London: Macmillan, 2007             ISBN 9780230703674

This book is a personal cry of rage, a fulfilment of a vendetta in words. After 300 pages of clinical and highly readable description of how the Camorra not only kill, but corrupt and pollute Italy's land and people, Roberto Saviano screams "Hey, you bastards, I'm still here!".

While it is the Mafia that have received most of the press over the years, it is the Camorra that was the most active criminal entity in Italy in the ten years before Saviano wrote this book. A native of Naples, Saviano finds himself drawn to document not only the activities of the Camorra, but it's effect on his hometown and its people.

He describes in detail how the Camorra clans became involved not only in drugs, illegal rubbish dumping and counterfeit fashion: he shows us that they also engage in "legitimate" business - the same sweatshops that produce the counterfeits also make the real stuff! The clans get these legitimate contracts via criminal means, by forcing competitors out of business or often by controlling the logistics chain so that they can do things more cheaply than anyone else.

Saviano makes clear through the book how young men (and women) get drawn into the clans: "These same regions [Campania, Sicily, Calabria] head the list for the largest criminal associations, the highest unemployment rate, and the greatest number of volunteers for the military and the police forces." The feeling of power that comes with being a member of a clan is something, even if it is often also a death sentence.

And what of Camorra power? Saviano notes that no clan lasts as a power for more than ten years or so; they either get destroyed by the police, or a beaten in a war by another clan. Often the capos spend their lives on the run or in hiding, so they rarely get to enjoy the massive amounts of cash they generate. It is the power, the respect they get from their position , that is the most important to them. In Campania, to be a Camorrista is to be someone, On several occasions in this book, Saviano is asked by people he knows why he doesn't join the clans, as his intelligence would be an asset - there is no moral difference to some local people between the clans and other professions.

As in the rest of Southern Italy, what people say, who they say it to, and how it is said is important. Saviano shows us how the Camorra uses murder to besmirch innocent people, and people who speak out against the clans - if someone is executed by a clan the automatic inference is that they must have been guilty of something. So not only are the clans omnipotent, they are infallible.

Saviano's rage, like the rage of most people who are opposed to Italian organised crime, is also directed at the government, which, time and time again, fails in its duty to the people. Quite often this is because those in government are part of, or compromised by, the Camorra. There seems to be no way to permanently break this nexus of evil.

Gomorrah was a bestseller in its native land, and across the World. While it shone a light on the inner workings of the Camorra, it did little to change what goes on. Saviano became a marked man, and has lived under police protection since he wrote this book.

As an armchair consumer of books on Italian organised crime, I can recommend Gomorrah as an excellent work, and well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell