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Which turn will the 21st century take? Michele Magwood talks to historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari about the challenges facing humankind

Published in the Sunday Times

21 Lessons for the 21st Century *****
Yuval Noah Harari, Jonathan Cape, R320


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a world deluged by irrelevant information,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, “clarity is power.”

The slight, unassuming Israeli historian shot to fame with his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind which was originally published in Hebrew. He followed it up with Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Together they have sold tens of millions of copies and been translated into 45 languages.

Harari is a boldly original thinker and credits the Buddhist tradition of Vipassana meditation for his focus and insight. He meditates for two hours a day and for one or two months of the year takes a silent retreat with no books or social media. He is a vegan and chooses not to use a smartphone.

Now, having scrutinised the course of human history and forecast the future of the species, Harari presents 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, which drills into the here and now and the immediate future of human societies. What are today’s greatest challenges and choices? he asks. Where are we heading and what should we pay attention to? Divided into sections like “The Technological Challenge”, “Despair and Hope” and “Resilience” the book presents a deeply disquieting view. “As a historian, I cannot give people food or clothes – but I can try and offer some clarity.”

Yuval Noah Harari. Picture: Olivier Middendorp.

 

Here he answers questions for the Sunday Times:

What do you believe are the high-road and low-road scenarios in the 21st century? What is the best we can aspire to and what is the worst to fear?

The twin revolutions in biotechnology and information technology will give us godlike powers of creation and destruction. But technology doesn’t tell us how to use it. In the 20th century, some societies used the powers of electricity, trains and radio to create totalitarian dictatorships while other societies used exactly the same powers to create liberal democracies. Biotech and infotech can also be used to create very different kinds of societies.

Perhaps the worst-case scenario is that humankind will split into different biological castes, resulting in a situation far worse than apartheid. Artificial intelligence will push hundreds of millions of people out of the job market and into a new “useless class”. People will lose their economic worth and their political power. At the same time, bioengineering will make it possible to upgrade a small elite into super-humans. Revolt and resistance will be almost impossible due to a total surveillance regime that constantly monitors not just what every individual does and says, but even what every individual feels and thinks.

The best-case scenario is that the new technologies will liberate all humans from the burden of disease and hard labour and enable everyone to explore and develop their full potential. Bioengineering will focus on curing the needy rather than on upgrading the rich. Artificial intelligence will indeed eliminate many jobs, but the resulting profits will be used to provide everyone with free basic services, and to allow everyone the opportunity to pursue their dreams, in the field of art, sports, religion or community-building. State-of-the-art surveillance will be used to spy not on the citizens, but on the government, to make sure there is no corruption.

Which of these scenarios will come true?

At present, we seem to be heading towards the dystopian scenario, mainly due to growing global tensions. You cannot regulate bioengineering and artificial intelligence on the national level. For example, if most countries ban genetic-engineering of human babies, but China allows it, very soon everybody will copy the Chinese, because nobody would like to stay behind. The only way to effectively regulate such disruptive technologies is through global co-operation.

What role will religion, ethics and morality play in the 21st century? Are we “playing God”, for example, with bioengineering?

Ethics will be more important than ever, because humankind will be more powerful than ever. When you have the power to re-engineer life, your views on “right” and “wrong” acquire cosmic importance. But you don’t need religion in order to have a good moral compass. For morality doesn’t mean “obeying God” – morality means “reducing suffering”. In order to act morally, you just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering.

Secular people abstain from murder not because some god forbids it, but because killing inflicts suffering on sentient beings. There is something deeply troubling and dangerous about people who avoid killing just because “God says so”. Such people are motivated by obedience rather than compassion, and what will they do if they come to believe that their god commands them to kill heretics, witches or gays?

And it is noteworthy that secular morality really works. The most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world such as Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands are secular. In contrast, deeply religious countries such as Iraq and Pakistan tend to be violent and poor. @michelemagwood

Book details

The 2018 Man Booker Prize shortlist has been announced!

The six authors shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize have been announced!

First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is recognised as the leading prize for high quality literary fiction written in English.

This year’s list features four female writers, among which the 27-year-old British debut novelist Daisy Johnson – the youngest writer ever to be in reckoning for this £50,000 literary award.

The six authors, of which three are from the UK, two American and one Canadian, vying for this esteemed award are as follows:

Anna Burns (UK) for Milkman

Esi Edugyan (Canada) for Washington Black

Daisy Johnson (UK) for Everything Under

Rachel Kushner (US) for The Mars Room

Richard Powers (US) for The Overstory

Robin Robertson (UK) for The Long Take

The winner will be announced on Tuesday 16th October in London’s Guildhall.

Book details

In an exclusive interview, Kate Atkinson talks to Michele Magwood about spying, Brexit, and World War II

Published in the Sunday Times

Transcription ****
Kate Atkinson, Doubleday, R290

Kate Atkinson was immersed in the National Archives in London when a set of documents caught her eye. Part of one of MI5’s periodic releases of historical records, they concerned a WW2 agent with the code name “Jack King” who infiltrated fascist circles. He posed as a Gestapo agent and would meet members of the so-called “fifth column” in an innocent-looking flat with hidden recording devices. Next door a junior agent transcribed the meetings.

On the telephone from the UK Atkinson describes how it sparked the idea for the new novel.

“I have to have a title before I can even think about a book, so as soon as I’d read those transcriptions I had it. And then I looked up the OED definition and found it is also a word for broadcasting so it fitted perfectly, because I wanted to write about the BBC in wartime.”

Atkinson’s last two books Life After Life and A God in Ruins – both winners of the Costa Prize – were set in World War 2 and she’s nowhere near done with it yet.

Transcription is a story about ambiguity and duplicity, about idealism, loyalty and the lifelong price of those.

Juliet Armstrong is just 18 and an orphan when she is recruited by the secret service in 1940.

Initially she is the typist who transcribes the interviews taking place in the flat next door. She’s a sharp young woman with a delightfully derisive interior voice: for example, her boss is describing the fifth columnists. “Our own home-grown evil … instead of rooting them out the plan is to let them flourish – but within a walled garden from which they cannot escape and spread their evil seed.” A girl could die of old age following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. “Very nicely put, Sir,” she said.

“I never design a character,” says Atkinson. “I write very, very slowly at the beginning of a novel and that helps to get into that interior voice. I’m inside their heads. But I don’t construct them – they simply exist. I don’t understand the neurological process, the imaginative process that helps that to occur.”

Juliet is not particularly ambitious, she is more interested in romance and going to dance halls, but her boss promotes her to undercover agent. At first she thinks it is a bit of a lark but it quickly becomes deadly serious and she learns, appallingly, what the consequences of espionage can be. As the book moves forward to 1950 and even further to 1981, we wonder whether she can ever be free of the war.

“I’m really interested in the postwar period,” Atkinson explains, “the 10 years after the war. It was so dingy and hard, there was no sense of euphoria, no money, no food still.”

Romanian actress Nadia Gray in the BBC studios, London, England, December 14 1950. Picture: Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

 
Juliet goes to work for the BBC where she produces nostalgic history programmes for children. It’s a safe and uneventful life, until the intelligence services reel her in for one last job.

Atkinson is bemused by the prevailing Brexit jingoism, the idea of a brave Great Britain standing proudly alone in the war.

“I think the war makes us very nostalgic, and let’s not forget that our view of the war is filtered through the propaganda of the time: the Blitz spirit and so on. When in fact crime rates rocketed, illegitimacy rocketed, people complained a lot. Everything was destroyed. Also, we fought for Europe and now we want to let it go, that to me is slightly mystifying.”

Is there more to be revealed from archives?

“Yes, I think there is. The MI5 and secret service archives are sealed – it’s not like the public records where everything gets released after 40 or 50 years – they only release to the public what they choose to, so I imagine there’s a great deal more. But in a way it was an untried service in the war. They were still learning. When you think about what it must be like now, just the technological aspect of what they must be doing, we really don’t know.

“But we don’t know what we don’t know, do we?” @michelemagwood

Book details

An African refugee finds her struggle is not over once she makes it to the US, writes Margaret von Klemperer

Published in the Sunday Times

Clemantine Wamariya says being reunited with her parents on TV, with no warning, made her feel like the subject of an experiment. Picture: Julia Zave.

 
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After
****
Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil, Hutchinson, R320

Clemantine Wamariya’s story opens in 2006. She was an 18-year-old high-school student in the US and a finalist in an Oprah Winfrey essay competition. As one of the finalists, she set off for the filming of an episode of Oprah’s show on Holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize winner Elie Wiesel, as her essay was about Wiesel’s book, Night. But Wamariya is also a survivor – in her case, the Rwandan genocide.

Wamariya attended the shoot with her sister, Claire, who, nine years older than the six-year-old Clemantine, had protected her through six horrific years in the refugee camps of seven African countries. By 2006, they knew their parents had also survived, although they had not seen them for 12 years. With no warning, Oprah reunited the family on screen, in front of a worldwide TV audience – and of course there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Oprah had done an amazing thing, reuniting a family after years of devastation, death and loss. And she had raised awareness of a terrible event. But when I read about it, I could only see it as the commodification of grief and suffering, calculated to load the disengaged watchers with warm fuzzy feelings, but shattering to those to whom it mattered.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is partly an articulation of what that evening in a television studio meant. Wamariya says she was grateful to Oprah, of course, but goes on: “But I also felt kicked in the stomach, as though my life were some psychologist’s perverse experiment.”

Claire and Clemantine Wamariya on ‘Oprah’.

 
Wamariya tells her story with almost unbearable honesty and a palpable anger as she describes the refugee years with Claire, a survivor who was always on the hustle. In that time Claire had two children who Wamariya made it her mission to keep alive, clean and attractive – because clean, attractive infants score better in the hand-to-mouth refugee existence.

Once the sisters were granted refugee status in the US, Wamariya was taken in by a family who saw to her education so successfully that eventually she was accepted to go to Yale. But her main struggles were never going to be academic: Wamariya had to deal with people who wanted, often from the best of motives, to see her as a kind of “genocide princess”, particularly after Oprah. She tried to live up to that, but boiling away beneath the surface was distrust of people’s motives, learnt in her years trailing around the eastern side of Africa.

Then there was the difficulty of forming a relationship with the family she had been torn from at the age of six. Wamariya is honest about her problems and the loss of a sense of self that came from her horrendous childhood. She writes of her hatred of the word “genocide”, because it is an easy catch-all. Each person caught up in it has their own personal story, a private horror that can become lost in the general.

We all know the compassion fatigue that stories of refugees and their situation can engender. Wamariya lays her experience before us without asking for pity or even understanding, but simply for the time it takes to read her book. And it is well worth every minute.

Book details

Listen: Pippa Hudson in conversation with Arundhati Roy

Acclaimed Indian author Arundhati Roy was a recent guest on Pippa Hudson’s CapeTalk lunchtime show during her current tour of South Africa.

Listen to them discuss the use of the term ‘activist’, structures of novels, challenging the sacred and the profane, the patriarchy and much, much more:

The God of Small Things

Book details
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
EAN: 9780679457312
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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundathi Roy
EAN: 9780241303986
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RIP V.S. Naipaul (17 August 1932 - 11 August 2018)

Via Times Select

By Andrew Donaldson

There has been a flood of tributes and career appraisals following the death at the weekend of VS Naipaul, arguably the greatest and most infuriating figure in post-colonial literature. For more than five decades he gave his readers often searing and withering portraits of societies in the developing world.

That honesty earned him severe criticism – and not just for his particular point of view on the colonialism and post-colonialism so unequivocally detailed in his novels and travel writing. He was just as brutal when it came to his own failings as a man, so much so that his violent behaviour threatened to overwhelm his literary reputation.

He spared his biographer, Patrick French, nothing – so much so that the latter’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul (Vintage, 2009) is a gobsmacking page-turner.

Naipaul was fairly open about the humiliation he caused his first wife, Patricia Hale, and the 20-year affair he conducted with Margaret Gooding, a women he regularly assaulted. When the affair began, his editor Diana Athill rebuked him for his behaviour. He told her: “I am having carnal pleasure for the first time in my life, are you saying I must give it up?”

Pleasure meant degrading Gooding in bed. As Naipaul told French: “I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt … She didn’t mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn’t appear really in public. My hand was swollen. I was utterly helpless. I have enormous sympathy for people who do strange things out of passion.”

What to read, though, of the 29 books that Naipaul produced? His first collection of short stories, Miguel Street (1959), details the lives of ordinary Trinidadians in a run-down corner of Port of Spain. The novels A House for Mr Biswas (1961), The Mimic Men (1967) and A Bend in the River (1978) are pretty much essential. Of his non-fiction work I recommend The Loss of El Dorado (1969), his India travelogues, An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilisation (1977) and India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998).

He was particularly scathing about South Africans in The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief (2010). An uncomfortable experience, you could say.

The World is What it Is

Book details
The World is What it Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul by Patrick French
EAN: 9780330455985
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Miguel Street

Miguel Street by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780435989545
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A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522892
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The Mimic Men

The Mimic Men by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522922
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A Bend in the River

A Bend in the River by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522991
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The Loss of El Dorado

The Loss of El Dorado by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522847
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An Area of Darkness

An Area of Darkness: His Discovery of India by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522830
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India: A Wounded Civilization

India: A Wounded Civilization by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522717
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India: A Million Mutinies Now

India: A Million Mutinies Now by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330519861
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Among the Believers

Among the Believers by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330522823
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Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330517874
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The Masque of Africa

The Masque of Africa by VS Naipaul
EAN: 9780330472043
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