Every decade or so I reread Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I have just embarked again on this pleasure. I don’t put the rereading on my calendar. Instead the need arises; I can’t say exactly why, but I find myself wanting to reread this great novel, often because of wrestlings in my own work or because of the need for an ordering of the universe of politics, history, art and spiritual quest. The return is always a homecoming, a touchstone.
Authors are often asked, what is your favorite book? Mine, modestly, is War and Peace. I admire Tolstoy’s ability to weave large historical and political themes with compelling personal dramas. I admire the surprises of character and circumstances that occur, to which one responds, “I didn’t see that coming, but of course, that is what he/she would do or what would happen.” This verisimilitude and recognition of the truth beneath the surface of events and personalities is one of the ingredients of great literature.
Recently, I was asked by an acquaintance for advice on how to lead a discussion of a novel in a book group. I wasn’t part of the group and hadn’t read the novel, but I offered what I look for both in reading and in writing. I consider three circles of narrative. The inner circle: the essence is the personal story and conflict of the main characters. That conflict is reflected in the story of the community around them–the second circle. And in novels with large templates and scope, the conflict will then be seen in an outer circle of narrative in the wider society and history.
At its simplest, the struggles toward love, individual choice and liberation are the story of Natasha, Pierre and Andrei in War and Peace, of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, even of Scheherazade in Arabian Nights as their societies also struggle towards change. This of course is the simplest of paradigms, but perhaps useful.
I reread War and Peace slowly. The pleasure of reading endures scene by scene—one scene a day—so that the language, the characters, and the story are a small serving of art to start the day. However one’s day unfolds, whatever successes or lapses, there is the evidence of this ideal achieved and the promise of beauty and order to be realized.
In this space I hope you’ll share the books and narratives that are your touchstones.
–Written at a bistro by the fire near the Grand Place in Brussels on a chilly October afternoon, looking at passersby bundled in parkas and strolling among the red and green stalls and the sand-colored buildings boasting flags at the onset of winter in Northern Europe.
The night sky swarmed with pale insects like snow flakes fluttering outside the window of the airplane as it landed at the small airfield in Northern Nigeria. At first they looked like moths, but they were hundreds…thousands of grasshoppers diving into the headlights and fuselage of the plane. Were they cruising the night sky, interrupted by our descent, or had the lights and the hum of the airplane drawn them to their end?
Inside the terminal a luggage belt creaked as bags were pushed one at a time through a small portal onto a set of rollers. When the lights went out and the terminal fell dark, we waited, but the power didn’t return. One by one cell phones flipped open– small arcs of light aimed at the weathered belt as the passengers from Lagos searched for their bags. Dragging suitcases behind us, holding cell phones in front of us to light the way, we plunged into the warm night.
I was in Nigeria as a board member of Human Rights Watch which held meetings there last year. We spoke with government officials after a dubious presidential election. We met with lawyers and human rights activists and teachers and judges and other members of civil society. See HRW reports on Nigeria. We brought experience, research, and expectations. We gained further experience, laid out the expectations, found bridges and absorbed the cacophony of the night.
On the eastern edge of Africa on the coast of Tanzania the sun rises out of the Indian Ocean like a giant topaz transported from the sub-continent. Around the sun the ocean crashes against the rocks on the coast of Dar es Salaam.
After breakfast I climb into a four-wheeled drive vehicle to go outside the city to visit schools in the countryside where children and teachers are reading and writing and telling stories in Kiswahili and making books to share with other children in the local language. The Children’s Book Project, started in Tanzania in 1991 and has assisted in bringing hundreds of books to publication, distributed these paperback readers into schools, set up libraries in the schools, and trained teachers and artists on how to write and illustrate books and how to teach with these readers. The schools where the CBP is involved have regularly out-performed many of the schools in the country.
In one classroom students perform a story they have read in one of the storybooks. Tabu wa Taire was written by a teacher and tells of a young girl who doesn’t listen to her parents and prefers to play rather than work. One day she wanders too far from home and is captured by a man who puts her inside his drum. Her parents and the village look everywhere for her, but can’t find her until the man comes to their village to play his drum. Someone hears crying from inside the drum, and there the village finds and rescues the girl. The students act out this story for the class and the visitors and end with a celebratory concert on the drum and orange fantas all around.
We drive through the bush along a narrow dirt road, the sun beating on the closed windows, the trees hanging down over the path, crowding the road on both sides so that the 4-wheel drive car is literally pushing back the brush as we plow carefully around the turns, occasionally dodging another car or long-horned cattle who amble across the one-lane road to graze on the other side.
We are several hours outside of the capital Kampala and over an hour off the main road, rocking from side to side in the dense undergrowth when suddenly we come to a clearing and a school. The school’s red earthen huts rise from the ground with tin roofs. There are no doors on the huts. There are few books here, and the learning materials hang from the ceilings so that the cows, who can wander in and out of these classrooms, won’t destroy them.
This school is for 75 children of pastoralists–families who make their living tending cattle, moving from place to place with their cows looking for grazing lands. The children usually travel with their parents and don’t have an opportunity to go to school. But here in the clearing, on land donated by one of the more successful in the community, a school has been built; the roofs have been donated by the son of one of the wealthier families. Teachers have been recruited and trained by Save the Children. The children in the school are studying in grade levels 1-4 with the hope that the school will be able to add grades as the children grow. Because there is a school, many of these families, at least the women, will stay in the area while the children attend classes. Some of the women are discussing how to keep the cows out of the classrooms.