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Hell-bent

Leanne Ogasawara

The Parade, by Dave Eggers, Hamish Hamilton, 192 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 9780241394496

Dante might have borrowed his idea for hell’s antechamber from the Book of Revelations (3:16): “But because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.”

Dante’s third circle of hell lies just inside the gates: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But it is still on this side of the River Acheron, across from which is hell proper. This is why the third circle is sometimes referred to as hell’s antechamber. A place for cowards and fence-sitters. Opportunists, wafflers and neutrals. That is to say, this is where most people will end up.

This is the world we find ourselves in in Dave Eggers’s latest novel, The Parade.

There are two men. They have no names (only numbers) and no physicality; no distinguishing features beyond their defining sin. Four is an opportunist. He is a fence-sitter. He is a guy who wants to get the job done so he can collect his paycheck and get back to his family. In contrast, Nine is defined by his insatiable appetites (and so probably belongs in hell proper). Nine is there to drink in the world. He doesn’t think of consequences. He might be a rapist. While neither are good, neither are completely bad either. Four is devoted to his wife and daughter back home, and Nine gives away crucial medical supplies because, he says, “The people need them more than we do.” And Nine notices the beauty of the stars at night, while Four doesn’t care.

In a nameless landscape equally devoid of distinguishing features, Four and Nine have been hired to pave a road connecting the remote south of the country to the capital in the north. This is a development project entrusted to a foreign subcontractor and presumably funded by a first world country. America? Japan? Back in the 1990s, when Japan was the world’s greatest foreign aid donor, my ex-husband was part of a team like this. Funded by the Japanese government, he was hired by a Japanese subcontracting company to build schools and public toilets in Lesotho, in southern Africa. Everyone on the project was Japanese— many of them long-timers in Africa.

Imagine the Sudan. Imagine South Sudan. Imagine any failed country. Eggers does not give us too many clues other than to paint a picture of a place where rebels in mirrored sunglass drive around in chauffeured cars with gun-toting guards and no matter what question you ask you’ll never get a straight answer.

Four is tasked to man the gigantic paving machine, while Nine goes ahead to clear the path. Their only goal is to get the project finished on time. In twelve days, Four is told, the government has planned a great parade along the new road. A civil war has just ended, you see. And the parade is set to mark the occasion.

So, maybe hell is a failed state in Africa? Or is hell really the development aid project working there?

In Lesotho, the members of the team talked a lot about the futility of their work. I asked, “Wouldn’t it be better to help the people in Lesotho to build industries and gain know-how so they can build their own schools? Their own public toilets?”

“Of course, it would be better!” they replied. “All of this stuff we are giving them, the cars, the toilets, the buildings, will become junk if they don’t have local industries to make repairs and maintain the equipment.”

I wondered at the time, if more harm wasn’t being done than good. About ten years ago, esteemed economist Dambisa Moyo wrote the book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. In the book she said that foreign aid to Africa has not only been a failure but that it is malignant. Nine and Four are guys just doing their job, sure. But do they really have any idea ‑ do they even care? ‑ about the consequences this road might bring?     

“Hurting themselves by harming others,” we know from reading Dante that those in hell choose to be there. Feckless and friendless, Eggers’s two characters seemingly live with a terrible void within themselves. With no sense of community, no overreaching authority or collective vision to make sense of things, they utterly fail to “get it”. It is an epic failure of imagination.

Ultimately a depressing book, some reviewers found The Parade unbearably cynical. But is it? Eggers, we know, has seen his fair share of Africa and foreign aid projects. He has travelled widely, not only in Sudan for his nonfiction book The Lost Boys of Sudan; but also extensively in Yemen, when he was working on his bestseller The Monk of Mokha. Eggers is known not only for his literary genius but for his charitable works as well. He is not a guy who just writes a cheque. He thinks about things deeply and acts accordingly.

In his literary style he is reminiscent of Haruki Murakami. That pristine style that will get under your skin in some uncomfortable ways. Reading The Parade, I kept thinking of Hannah Arendt’s description of the Nazi Eichmann. Painting him as a cog in the wheel, that was the banality of evil: its utter lack of imagination. In Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, the librarian Oshima says it like this:

It's all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine … just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities.

Imagination is essential for human understanding and compassion. What Hannah Arendt taught us, however, is that this imagination must be collective. In her words, the human heart must go visiting, otherwise we lose our power to be moral. The ability to look at the world from another’s point of view in an imaginative way. Kant required this of us. And perhaps novels like The Parade and Kafka on the Shore help us to see it too. Even in times like our own, when we think “nothing will come of it”, now more than ever, novels like The Parade serve an important purpose. In allowing us to see the consequences of our failure of imagination, we see the harm that is not only done to others, but to our own selves as well.

1/3/2020

Leanne Ogasawara has worked as a translator from the Japanese for over twenty years. Her translation work has included academic translation, poetry, philosophy, and documentary film.

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