The former Canadian general and head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Dallaire has always been brutally open about the horrors he saw there and their effects upon him. Only “constant therapy and an unrelenting regimen of drugs” keep the memories at bay, he writes in his new book. But nothing has managed to soothe the shock Dallaire experienced when he saw preteen killers, armed to the teeth with machetes and rifles, advancing upon him.
In some 30 wars across the world, he notes, hundreds of thousands of child fighters—their ranks endlessly renewed by kidnapping or by scooping up kids orphaned by AIDS, famine or violent conflicts—have become “the ultimate, cheap, expendable, yet sophisticated human weapon.” Children are, in fact, horrifically perfect for the job. They’re small enough to transport easily in large numbers, yet big enough to handle modern lightweight arms, and heavy enough also to set off land mines so adults can safely follow. They have no real sense of fear and, when indoctrinated young enough, their capacity for loyalty and for barbarism exceeds that of adults. The girls—40 per cent of child soldiers—double as sex slaves and, in long-lasting wars, as mothers of the next generation of fighters.
For Dallaire, almost as bad as the war situation he describes with such cold eloquence is the fact that the world seems to be doing little about it. The better to bring home the emotional truth of his subject, he crafted three fictional chapters on the abduction, indoctrination and killing (by a UN peacekeeper) of a child soldier. Dallaire pulls off fiction with considerable skill, but readers who are more interested in solutions will be relieved when he turns to practical suggestions. One in particular would make children far less useful to their adult controllers: a serious effort to stamp out the trade in lightweight weapons.
- BRIAN BETHUNE
It seems impossible that a love affair between a celebrated middle-aged playwright and a middle-aged historical biographer could ignite a tabloid-worthy scandal. But it did in 1975 when British literary lions Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser fell wildly in love. Fraser, who had six children, quickly shed her MP husband; Pinter’s actress wife, with whom he had a son, proved more resistant. But this marriage of true minds brooked no impediments. Within months, they had moved in together. In 1980, they wed.
“Beguiling,” one of Fraser’s favourite words, is an apt descriptor of her diary-format memoir of their 33-year union in which they travelled across continents, sparred lovingly over comma placement, read Shakespearean sonnets and marched for civil liberties. In this epic love story, they are the central characters. Everyone else—be it Samuel Beckett, Jude Law, Salman Rushdie, Nigella Lawson, Václav Havel or their own children—has a walk-on role, though Fraser dispenses a few telling details, including overhearing Diana, Princess of Wales telling Shimon Peres she’d love to visit Israel: “anything for some sun.”
Fraser also offers a few crumbs to Pinter scholars about his creative process (he wrote only when inspired) and evolving political convictions. Mostly, though, he’s uxorious—showering his wife with flowers, poems, jewellery and impeccably chosen books. It is rare to read of a modern marriage maturing into such singular devotion. If there were major tensions, they are not shared here, though Fraser does recall finding a place card Pinter kept from a dinner party, on which she’d scribbled an affectionate chide while listening to him argue a political point: “Darling—you are right. So SHUT UP.”
The final years—riven with Pinter’s failing health and their joy at his winning the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature—are the most affecting. At the very end, Fraser is alone by her husband’s bedside, referencing one of Shakespeare’s most famous farewells. Such is her storytelling finesse, most readers will be forced to re-read that page, having been blinded by tears the first time.
- ANNE KINGSTON
One of the funniest American writers alive, Frazier’s humour is muted here: love—he’s head over heels for Siberia and Siberians—has made him more solemnly elegiac than usual. Of course, you can’t keep a comic genius down entirely, and his two-page discussion of Russian public washrooms—some of “our trading partners (I’m talking to you, too, China) need to know how far apart we are on the subject”—will bring tears to readers’ eyes, if only tears of horror. But mostly Frazier relies, quite rightly, on a straightforward description of an astonishing place, its always sad and sometimes weirdly uplifting human history, and its fatalistic inhabitants. In The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum by Himself, written in 1672, Frazier finds the definitive Siberian view of existence caught in a single verbal exchange. As they struggled along an ice road, Avvakum’s wife, exiled with him, asked how long their suffering would continue; the archpriest replied, “Until we die.” Her response: “Very well, Petrovich, let us be getting on our way.”
And so Frazier too goes on his way. The meat of the book is derived from his third visit to Russia: a drive across Siberia in the summer of 2001 that took 37 days. That was more than enough time to discourse on czars, Mongols, commissars, and prison camps, while developing a psychological explanation of Russia’s often bullying foreign policy: the rest of the world has to cut Russia some slack because of its terribly abused childhood.
Time enough, too, to consider the Biblical-plague hordes of stinging insects that go along with the world’s largest forest and largest swamp, the endless beautiful panoramas, and the depressing heaps of man-made garbage. Small wonder Siberians are fatalistic. But Frazier also conveys, in his entrancing portrayal, a people prone to spontaneous kindnesses: camped by a lake on 9/11, the only American within hundreds of kilometres, he was moved to tears when a group of previously unfriendly poachers brought him a salmon in sympathy.
- BRIAN BETHUNE
Pages: 1 2