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Stories of Truth, Memory, Terror

by Professor Bruce Magnusson, Politics

What is the study of politics without good stories?
All of the books I am recommending are not only uncommonly good stories, but they are all, fiction and nonfiction, stories about stories and memories -- their uses, abuses, loss and recovery.

* Absalom, Absalom!: The Corrected Text by William Faulkner (Vintage International, 1990). I like to think of this book by Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner as an exorcism of sorts and an excavation of a family story that is also the story of the American South and its sense of place, identity, secrets, and mythology. This is a difficult novel of awful beauty, but it is my favorite Faulkner novel.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Perennial Classics, 1998). It is commonplace to compare Marquez (who won the Nobel Prize in 1982) with Faulkner. The thematic resemblances of family, identity, and memory are striking, but Marquez sucks us into the entirely different world of the village of Macondo and the exploitation of international politics.

A Short History of a Small Place by T. R. Pearson, 1st Owl book ed. (Henry Holt & Co., 1994). This book might be called the “anti-Faulkner.” In that southern story-telling tradition, the themes of family, community, identity, secrets, dysfunction, and memory are the same, but this is truly the funniest book I have ever read. It demands being read aloud and in whatever North Carolina accent you can muster.

* King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999). This chronicle reminds us that the 20th century is framed by the killing fields in the Congo, first by King Leopold at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries (8-10 million people dead?), and now (1998-2002) by multiple militias, armies, warlords, and economic interests (2.5 million dead?). This is a book about power politics, journalism, and the recovery of memory.

Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid (Yale University Press, 2001). Published before September 11, Taliban reminds us that Afghanistan has a history between the withdrawal of the Soviets and the war on terrorism. This is a fascinating journalistic account of at least part of the story of how we got here from there. What we don’t know, we can’t remember.

No Future Without Forgiveness by Desmond Tutu (Doubleday & Co., 2000). South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission establishes a common national story out of the individual stories of the victims and perpetrators of apartheid. This is a personal and emotional account of the struggle to establish a common South African identity through a truthful accounting of the past.

Bruce Magnusson, Assistant Professor of Politics














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