The Guest Cat – Quick Review


Takashi Hiraide  平出 隆 China.png

Translated by Eric Selland

Picador (2014), 144 pages

A Present

The Guest Cat tells the story of a couple living in Tokyo and the effect that a feline interloper has on their lives.  The prose is typically Japanese in that it is perfectly weighted.  Sentences are short and to the point.  However The Guest Cat feels just a bit too sparse.  It is a novella and the actual printed text is about 120 pages.  It feels maybe it should have been written as a long short story.  Despite the deeper ideas at work beneath the surface the plot never grabs me.  It’s not that I don’t like cats just that I struggled to empathise with the characters in the book (I actually have a “guest cat” of my own; some unknown neighbour’s feline that I’ve lured into my garden with pieces of ham to scare off the rats that occasionally appear at the end of my garden).  The Guest Cat is beautifully written but unfortunately, for me, the story didn’t match the writing.



Hash – Quick Review


Wensley Clarkson

Quercus Publishing (2013), 346 pages

CASA Charity Shop, €0.50

Hash, The Secret and Chilling Story Behind Drug’s Deadly Underworld tells the story of the hash trade, from its production in the mountains of Morocco to the streets of Europe.  Clarkson’s book is constructed using interviews he conducted with the various participants; the poorly paid producers in Morocco, the drug mules, the criminal gangs who manage the transport of the hash into Spain, top dealers who earn millions, and the police who attempt to stem the flow of the drug.  What Clarkson makes clear is that the trade in hash is every bit as brutal the trade in Class A drugs such as heroin and cocaine.  Clarkson identifies a strain of cold brutality that is necessary to survive in the game.  If somebody tries to cheat you, loses drugs, or has drugs confiscated by the police, you have no choice but to pay back your loss.  A failure to pay back a loss, even of a relatively low value, can result in a death sentence.  All of Clarkson’s interviewees at the top end of the game show no compunction about ordering killings to insure that they hold onto their power.

Hash‘s format is fairly simple.  Clarkson doesn’t go into any detailed analysis and doesn’t attempt to offer any detailed solutions.  Clarkson also makes clear, that despite being a lower class drug (which makes it attractive to criminals as although the rewards are lower so are the prison sentences), hash is potentially addictive.  Although I don’t use drugs myself I know two people who had addiction issues with hash.  As one person told me he began to realise he was having addiction issues when he wouldn’t go out at night with his girlfriend unless he could be sure he would end up some place where he could smoke hash.  Many of the hash smokers I know would consider themselves politically left of centre but would have no qualms about using a substance which is supplied by brutal gangsters whose supply routes are also used for arms and human trafficking.  Of course their argument would be that they have no choice where they get their hash from as its use is illegal in most of the world.  And legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco cause exponentially more deaths in Ireland.  It will be interesting to see how legalisation of cannabis goes in Uruguay and Colorado.  The experiment in the Netherlands helped turn the country into a hub for hash and a range of other illegal drugs and services.  Legalising consumption of hash is only half the battle, arguably the greater violence comes from its supply.  Trying to control only one half of the supply and demand chain has never worked.

If hash was to be legalised in Ireland then it should also be produced in Ireland.  In order to smoke hash legally you would have to be resident in Ireland (to reduce drugs tourism) and you would have to buy an annual license and attend a day course explaining the pros and cons of hash usage.  Then you would need to show your license whenever you buy hash at a licensed premises.  The hash could be sold in barcoded bags and it would be an offence to carry your hash unless it was in a barcoded bag.  For this to work the price couldn’t be much higher than the current price of hash on the street although most people would probably be willing to pay a very small premium for quality controlled hash that was being taxed for the benefit of the economy in general.  There could then be an argument for introducing tougher sentencing for those found dealing in illegal hash in the country.  What is clear from Clarkson’s book is that millions of euro are spent each year trying to stop the flow of hash and, judging by its availability, this expenditure spent is mostly wasted.  Clarkson’s book, although lacking in detailed analysis, is a useful insight into the brutality that lies behind a drug that’s used as a relaxant by millions of Europeans on a weekly basis.


Gomorrah – Review


Roberto Saviano China.png

Pan Books (2006 – original publication date), 320 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €1

Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia is an astonishing insight into the brutal world of an Italian mafia.  Gomorrah is also a meditation on violence and the devastating effects of such violence on individuals and Italian society as a whole.  The book looks into the world of the Camorra mafia.  Saviano starts his book by highlighting the economic foundations of southern Italian criminality.  Small illegal factories supply “Made in Italy” designer goods.  A worker, working ten hours a day, might only earn €500-€900 a month.  This is vulture capitalism of the most basic kind.  In order to compete with poorly paid and badly treated workers in China the illegal Italian factories treat their workers equally abysmally.  The Italian fashion houses are complicit in this industry and know that their goods are being produced in illegal factories.  High quality goods (or sometimes not so high quality) that aren’t purchased by the fashion houses find their way into the counterfeit market.  Both the real and fake goods are produced the same way, both are mired in criminality.  If you buy a quality fake handbag you are possibly funding the Camorra but the same could also be said even if you buy a genuine handbag!  The Camorra have moved beyond simply producing goods, they have captured the distribution and retail channels too, “The Secondigliano clans [the Camorra] have acquired entire retail chains, thus spreading their commercial network across the globe and dominating the international clothing market.  They also provide distribution to outlet stores” (p.39).  Like all of the world’s most successful criminal gangs the Camorra have adopted modern business and marketing theories to running their organisation.

While the fashion industry offers a semi-legal way of earning large amounts of money the Camorra are also major players in the illegal drug trade.  Certain areas of Camorra territory in Naples are protected zones where buyers can purchase a wide selection of drugs with a low risk of being arrested.  It is the battle for control of the drugs trade that led to a vicious internecine struggle between Camorra gangs in 2004.  Following the torture and murder of 22 year old Gelsomina Verde the Italian state launched a serious clampdown on the Camorra.  She had been targeted to try and get her to reveal the location of an ex-boyfriend.  Gomorrah’s strength is it’s ability to de-glamorise the mafia image of sharp suits, shiny guns, and beautiful women.  Saviano exposes the Camorra as ultra violent sociopaths whose notions of clan and community are twisted versions of the lives of normal decent people.  Any notions of honour and respect are destroyed by their violent misoginism.  Their gods are money and power at any cost, including their own lives.

Italy has paid a high price for its failure to stop the Camorra’s savagery.  The fight against the Camorra is effectively a paramilitary war with huge numbers of deaths, “Since I was born [1979], 3,600 deaths.  The Camorra have killed more than the Sicilian Mafia, more than the ‘Ndrangheta, more than the Russian Mafia, more than the Albanian families, more than the total number of deaths by ETA in Spain and the IRA in Ireland, more than the Red Brigades, the NAR, and all the massacres committed by the government in Italy” (p.120). Saviano has also paid a high price for his book.  He lives under police guard and as his life is under constant threat from the Camorra.  Interestingly Saviano is not sure if the success of Gomorrah has been worth the destruction of his ability to live a normal life.  The price of freedom of speech is sometimes painfully high for brave people such as Saviano who write fearlessly about the most brutal members of society.


Related Links

Guardian article by Saviano about his life under armed guard

King Leopold’s Ghost – Review

Leopold's Ghost

Adam Hochschild usa.png

Pan Books (2012), 356 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €6

African & European History

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa is both horrific and gripping.  After reading this book it is possible to see how the massive colonial abuses perpetrated by Leopold’s colonial underlings could psychologically scar a country for decades to come.

Like many colonial powers Belgium espoused liberty and increasing democracy at home whilst denying even the most basic rights to the people it colonised, “…there was something fox-like in the manner in which this constitutional monarch of a small, increasingly democratic country became the totalitarian ruler of a vast empire on another continent” (p. 34).  The claim of virtually all colonial powers was that they were civilising dark and dangerous parts of the globe.  The real reason was almost always financial.  The tribal leaders in the Congo entered into legalistic contracts they didn’t understand.  For the price of one piece of cloth per month chiefs, “…for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever…give up to the said Association [the International Association of the Congo which ran the country] the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories…and to assist by labour or otherwise any works, improvements or expeditions which the said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories…All the roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights are to be the absolute property of the said Association” (p. 72). There is no mention of any civilising projects. The veneer of respectability that colonial powers gave to their missions in their home countries quickly evaporated in the colonies.  In an era of poor communications violent abuses could be more easily concealed.


Congolese children and wives whose fathers or husbands failed to meet rubber collection quotas were often punished by having their hands cut off.  Source: Wikipedia

King Leopold’s Ghost also tracks the course of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, perhaps the quintessential colonial explorer.  I had heard of Stanley (and his famous “Dr. Livingstone I presume?” line) but knew nothing about him.  The picture painted by Hochschild is not a pretty one.  Livingstone comes across as a narcissistic, petulant, violent psychopath.  He was also a poor leader, more than half of his 389 men died as they scrambled through African forests.  He cut the tail off his dog, cooked it and fed it to the animal.   It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Stanley’s men as they brought terror to the villages they passed through.  One of Stanley’s officers noted that the villagers were singing, building huts, preparing food when he, “…opened the game by shooting one chap through the chest.  He fell like a stone… Immediately a volley was poured into the village” (p. 99).  Stanley was a British imperial hero, knighted for his achievements.  Colonialism, even more so than war, enabled ambitious and violent men to live out their fantasies of committing violent acts with impunity and actually being socially and financially rewarded for their crimes.  As Hochschild points out there were psychological reasons why such men carried out such brutal atrocities.  Deep internal pain and emptiness was transposed onto innocent people in a distant part of the world.

The rubber boom created massive profits for Leopold and insured the continuing survival of the colony.  Collecting rubber was an unpleasant task.  Locals were coerced into it by seizing their wives and children as hostages until they had collected the requisite amount.  Abuses of locals commenced on an industrial scale.  It was only the summary execution of a white man (an Irishman) that led English and German commentators to wonder how the natives were treated if a white man could be so easily killed.  The first real attempt to expose the abuses in the Congo came from the Englishman E.D. Morel who worked for a shipping company that shipped goods to the Congo.  Morel also worked as a freelance journalist.  He noticed that large amounts of weapons were being shipped to the Congo, that a chunk of the profits from the trade with the Congo seemed to be skimmed off the top, and that it appeared the natives weren’t being paid for their labour – the Congo was effectively a slave colony. Deaths were caused by murder, starvation, and disease.  People were murdered for failing to bring in the required rubber quota, massacres were regular occurrences.  Whipping was a common punishment even for children.

The legendary human rights investigator and Irishman Roger Casement was sent to investigate abuses in the Congo by the British government. The abuses Casement reported on were known to the likes of E.D. Morel but caused shock in much of Europe.  Hands were regularly chopped off the living and the dead (to punish the living and as proof of killing the dead).  The British government was not happy with the graphic tone of Casement’s report but the damage to Leopold was done (also because Casement used media interviews to insure that his report couldn’t be watered down too much).  Casement’s report was published in 1904 so Leopold set up his own Commission of Inquiry.  He was certain this inquiry, whose members he hand picked, would exonerate him.  This backfired badly when Leopold’s Commission of Inquiry basically substantiated previous claims of atrocities.  Leopold was also financially suspect, he pocketed funds that arguably should have gone to the Belgian state, and these funds should never have been extorted from the Congo.  Leopold’s profits from the Congo possibly exceeded a billion dollars in today’s money.

The Congo Reform Association, led by Morel, proved a thorn in the side of Leopold.  Morel wrote letters, articles, and books.  He also received letters from people providing information about abuses in the Congo.  The abuses were legion.  In 1919 the Belgian government estimated that since the start of the colonial era that the population of the Congo had been halved.  This means that the population fell by up to 10 million people.  Colonialism was an unmitigated disaster for the Congo.  The Belgian running of the Congo is arguably the nadir of European colonialism.  Colonial systems are designed in such a way as to guarantee abuses, the only matter is the extent of the abuses.


Related Links

Guardian article that qualifies Hochschild’s criticism of Leopold.

The Feast of the Goat – Review


Mario Vargas Llosa China.png

Faber & Faber (2012 – first published 2000 as El Chivo), 496 pages

Book Depository, €9.64

The Feast of the Goat is a masterpiece.  It is a portrait of a narcissistic and brutal dictator.  It shows the mechanisms by which an individual’s basest desires, for power, sex, and money, can infect a whole society and lead to a cycle of murderous violence.

Rafael Trujillo was an archetypical Latin American dictator.  He was a military dictator who came to power through a rigged election in 1930 and held onto power for more than 30 years.  He renamed the Dominican Republic’s capital city after himself and built a cult of personality around himself.  Opposition was brutally suppressed by Trujillo’s secret police.  Trujillo orchestrated the racist Parsley Massacre that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Haitians.  Like most dictators Trujillo used his position to enrich himself and his family at the expense of the average Dominican.  He also used his power to sexually abuse and rape women with impunity.  Vargas Llosa’s novel is a forensic account of Trujillo’s rule dovetailed with the story of those plotting to kill him.

Perhaps the most successful character in The Feast of the Goat is Urania Cabral.  She is a thread that is woven between the Trujillo era and modern-day Dominican Republic.  She struggles to come to terms with Trujillo’s abuse, the complicity of her father in the abuse, and her relationships with her surviving Trujillo-supporting relatives.  Urania is a rare female voice in a novel that exposes the worst excesses of a society run by a cabal of violent hyper-masculine men.

For some The Feast of the Goat might be too political to be considered art.  Too much politics can turn art into propaganda.  Vargas Llosa’s novel is a political novel but the distance offered by time, his creation of characters such as Urania, and the universality of his portrait of the psychology of evil raise The Feast of the Goat above mere propaganda.