Dissonance

We review From Africa to Afghanistan by Greg Mills and Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks.

From Africa to Afghanistan
by Greg Mills
(Wits University Press)

I needed some time to pass after reading this book. Truth is, I’m not entirely certain who it is for. The title for one thing is misleading: From Africa to Afghanistan is neither the story of a journey from ‘somewhere Africa” to Afghanistan nor is it a comparison of peacekeeping efforts between this continent and the Nato-led effort in that country.

From Africa to Afghanistan reads more like a ‘A Boy’s Guide to Dangerous Things” than anything else.

I read the book with the taste of Kabul Pilau still fresh in my mouth after a working visit to Afghanistan, and was keen to find out what Greg Mills had to say about the place. While Afghanistan is certainly the ‘anchor tenant” of the book, the entire set-up is rather schizophrenic. The author jumps around from start to finish between Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, the Middle East, the Balkans, Liberia, Vietnam and Somalia, with the only linking thread being either Nato or United Nations, or American military operations.

One of the most disturbing aspects is Mills’s apparent willingness to accept as gospel truth the pronouncements of the military brass he was embedded with. His comments about Nato’s strategic strikes in Kosovo are particularly grinding, as this reviewer did a UN assessment of damage a week after Nato bombs stopped falling and found that the strikes were anything but precise.

I would have expected Mills, as a civilian and the head of a think tank, to provide more political analysis. Instead, when drawing comparisons between the Nato mission in Afghanistan and its counterpart in the Balkans, he focuses on the similarities in military strategy rather than the dramatically different political reasons both missions were established; Afghanistan is part of the West’s war on terror while the Balkans represented a united European attempt to prevent a mass exodus of refugees from the former Yugoslavia into what was then a much smaller European Union.

When Mills jumps over to Colombia and explores that country’s methods of dealing with a high crime rate, he misses a golden opportunity to draw comparisons with South Africa. Yet, had he done so perhaps the book would have needed a new title.

There are other missed opportunities. Mills is quite eloquent on Liberia and its peacebuilding requirements but fails to draw comparisons with Afghanistan, notably the lack of international interest in African peacekeeping. The same is true with the thought-provoking­ points he makes on the Israel-Palestine­ conflict and the role the Brotherhood of Arab States plays; he opens the door for a strong African connection, notably with a look at Sudan, but the threshold is not crossed.

More time should have been given to UN peacekeeping elements and NGOs operating in the field. Mills correctly recognises the need for the military to win the hearts and minds of the local population if they are eventually to finish their mission on a positive note. What’s missing is credit to the UN and NGOs which continue to do most of the groundwork to create goodwill, arguably the most difficult task for expatriates operating in that theatre.—David Smith

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
by Oliver Sacks
(Picador)

Oliver Sacks’s name is synonymous with his two best-known previous works: Awakenings (1973) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985). He has described his genre as that of ‘clinical anecdotes” in which he describes the (sometimes very strange) realities and circumstances experienced by his neurological patients. And yet, his descriptions of his cases often have little clinical detail and instead tend to focus on the humanity of his patients who, more often than not, have become his friends. He also spends more time focusing on their ability to transform or transcend the malfunctioning crossed wires of their mental states, rather than on the conditions of their entrapment.

In his latest book, Sacks starts off with a marvellously childlike approach by looking at the vast expanse of musical possibilities and saying: ‘What an odd thing it is to see an entire species ... playing with, listening to, meaningless tonal patterns”. In an equally uncomplicated fashion, he looks into the human fascination with music, and the many peculiar musical anomalies which arise from certain brain conditions.

There are stories of musical hallucinations and many musical savants as well as an exploration of synesthesia, which is when senses mix and people begin to see the colour of notes and rhythms. On a more conventional level, Sacks explores the existence of perfect pitch and wonders why nearly all Chinese musicians have it, but hardly any Westerners.

The book deals with the role of music in human life, and looks specifically at the development of memory, emotion and intelligence in relation to music. In particular, Sacks narrates the stories of people with remarkable musical abilities who are unable to cope in the everyday world, as well as showing how often music has the ability to ease neurological distress.

It may be the case, as the German Romantic writer Novalis says, that ‘every disease is a musical problem; every cure a musical solution” (page 252), and it is extraordinary how many patients with severely debilitating neurological problems are immensely helped by singing, as well as hearing and playing music. For example, patients with Parkinson’s disease can often have their stutters and kinetic jerks harmonised by exposure to movement and music, and people with William’s disease love to express their sensitive emotions in song. As Sacks says, for people lost in dementia, music is not a luxury but ‘a necessity”, which can ‘restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while” (page 347).

The book might have too many footnotes for a general read. (Being the sort of person who feels compelled to read each footnote as it comes up, it annoys me when long paragraphs are not rather incorporated into the text itself so that I don’t keep losing my place to strain at the tiny letters at the bottom.)

Nevertheless, the book is an interesting combination of facts and feeling. Whereas The Man Who Mistook tended to stick to one case per chapter, this book is more encyclopaedic in nature and each theme tends to involve many different cases and compares many different situations in quick succession. The result is that sometimes one can lose focus on and empathy for each particular case.

The cases that are presented here may not be quite as peculiar as those in The Man Who Mistook, and they are perhaps not quite as heart-warming as Awakenings. Still, Sacks’s voice is a familiar one, which resonates with the harmonies of a rich and compassionate life lived and the book is a welcome addition from the man The New York Times has referred to as ‘the poet laureate of medicine”.—Anton Krueger

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