Thursday, February 16, 2006

Human (Un)Kindness

While trying to decide on my blog topic for this week, I came across this book review. Contact Wounds by Jonathan Kaplan is featured as the Read of the Week in this week’s Mail & Guardian. As someone who is unable to resist books or reviews thereof of any kind, I followed the temptation on this one, and am glad I did. Kaplan is a war surgeon who grew up in apartheid South Africa. According to the reviews, the book follows Kaplan’s journey from his early youth in a more subtle context of war – that of apartheid South Africa’s “burning injustices”, “police searches of non-whites, states of emergency, and gunshots in the night” – to war-ravaged Angola and Iraq. As one reviewer notes, “Jonathan Kaplan is a soldier in his own private war. Expatriate by choice from his home in South Africa, he wanders the world looking for other people’s wounds to stitch.”

My interest in this book stems from a close connection to my country’s history, the inhumane cruelty of people against people during apartheid, and my attempts to piece together the reality of those years from whatever sources I can. Kaplan’s distancing from the land of his birth, and “his inability to feel comfortable with the routine of everyday life, an urge to generate meaning and excitement by plunging into worthy causes, and the feeling that life is at its most elemental surrounded by death,” led him to places where human cruelty was even more acute. In his literary review of the book, John Sweeney writes, “Kaplan’s stories about the horror of Angola are so vivid that I found a couple of them hard to stomach. The narratives move to Iraq, and the chaotic mess created by an American superpower which is profoundly ignorant of the matters abroad…with an eyewitness account of how such a good cause as the removal of Saddam’s tyranny could have been so horribly bungled.”

The terrorist outrages in New York, Madrid and London have changed the stature of Kaplan’s own trade: he now teaches doctors in the big Western capitals about triage, and how to flick through multiple cases, sorting out who may live and who is going to die.” And yet there seems to be, inevitably, a narrative of goodness that emerges from the horror and the cruelty. In an interview with Kaplan, Paul Comstock asks him why his deep cynicism for governments does not extend to individuals, and what inspiring acts of humanity he has witnessed. Kaplan replies that he has been “struck by how people in the worst circumstances transcend human limitations and show a generosity of spirit more selfless than any god...(people) trying to save the children of people they have never met…digging graves for the bodies of unknown dead in order that they should be treated with appropriate respect…”

This is a book for realists, graveyard comedians and armchair saw-bones. Maybe it will inspire someone to get out of their chair and follow in Kaplan’s intrepid and erratic footsteps.” I, for one, have already ordered my copy. And I have no doubt that reading it – and books like it – will continue to move me to look deeper into the lives of people whose experiences have been vastly, violently different to mine, and to treat every person who walks across my path with humanity and compassion.

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