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the interpreter who fell asleep

Erik Orsenna, Voyage aux pays du coton. Petit precis de mondialisation [Journey to the Lands of Cotton. A Brief Manual of Globalisation], Fayard, 2006.

Orsenna’s primer on globalisation has been a significant success in France, with some 150 000 copies printed, and many of them doubtless sold. It is a pleasant example of mandarin travel writing, at once erudite and intellectually undemanding, genuinely concerned and inescapably condescending. Orsenna travels four continents to try and elucidate the logic of globalisation. He is always interesting, and always well-informed. It is almost impossible to know from the way he writes how most of his information is acquired, though internal evidence suggests a combination of serious library work, and good contacts. As befits a former adviser to Francois Mitterand and close friend of Pascal Lamy, he is often discreetly accompanied by diplomats, who occasionally make cameo appearances in one corner of the picture. His prose has the comfortable, reassuring purr of a reliably maintained, though not terribly up-to-date, chauffeur-driven car. The places he visits are captured clearly, but from a certain distance: never fully inhabited by the author, they seem to be slipping slowly away behind a pane of glass. And indeed, much of the familiarity he conveys with them is of the type which could easily have been garnered from conversations with local fixers in the course of the long road journeys which took him from A to B….

Unsurprisingly, then, his preferred interlocutors throughout are the educated actors of their own lives. Often they are taken seriously, sometimes they are ironised for their obsessions and their vanity. With the possible exception of his Uzbek interpreter, however, everyone whom Orsenna talks to is ’someone’. His few attempts to engage directly with the people who actually grow and work cotton by the sweat of their own brow are inconclusive, at best. A few desultory conversations with Chinese sweatshop workers reveal little or nothing, and lead only to a brush with the local security forces and an order to leave the province within 24 hours. A prospective friendship with a Texan cotton farmer is cut short when Orsenna tries to talk politics. And in what is possibly the most revealing sequence in the book, when the author is finally left alone by his host, the garrulous and lecherous Mr Akmedov, to have lunch with a group of Uzbek peasants, his interpreter falls asleep. The idea that now was the time to really do some work, that he could have woken Madamin up and got him to help him find out what these people were thinking and feeling, somehow doesn’t seem to have occured to him. Instead he closes his eyes and listens to the stream flow past them, as he dreams he is floating on a cloud above the Himalayas…

In a novel, this would be disappointing. In a work of literary reportage, it is dereliction of duty. Madamin may have earned his money, but one is no longer sure that Orsenna is really putting in the hours. It is no accident, then, if his platitudes on the ‘eternal submission’ of the Uzbek peasantry, followed a few pages later by a similar line on the submissive nature of the Chinese workforce, ring completely hollow.

Orsenna travels the world in order to try and understand it better. But he makes no attempt to connect with any of the people whose fate he laments, or whose efforts to improve themselves and their communities he extols. The result is often informative, but largely unrevealing, because ungrounded in any lived experience.

The charm of the narrative is systematically substituted not only for real documentary work, but also for rigorous intellectual argument. So when a few conclusions do begin to emerge — that fair trade is a dangerous illusion, that the WTO could and should be a force for the good, that the future of humanity depends upon the survival of the family business (caveat lector: when he says this, Orsenna is thinking of Louis Dreyfuss and the Weill Brothers, not the family who keep the grocery store at the end of your road…), or that the increasing scarcity of oil may do more to restore some measure of justice to agricultural trade than any well-intentioned intervention — they seem plucked from a hat, rather than earned, or even comprehensible.

The author’s candour about the brutal realities which lie behind our search for soft fabrics, then, functions simply as a hostage to realism, which helps reinforce the dominant illusion that there is nothing systematic to be said about our current economic system, and nothing radically effective which can be done to address the injustices which it generates. The fate of the world is not in our hands, or in the hands of the people who grow cotton and fashion it into goods for people to wear, but in the hands of states, perhaps of heroes, but more certainly of multinational corporations and multinational families, of international organisations even, and of Orsenna’s good friend Pascal Lamy. The most dangerous form of submission which Voyage aux pays du coton propagates, then, is not that of the peasants and workers who may never even suspect its existence, but that of its middle-class intellectual readers, many of whom may well find some strange comfort in its elegant demonstration of their helplessness before the eternal ‘complexity’ of the world.

(P.S. — His dismissal of Lucien Seguy’s research on no-dig agriculture as the meanderings of a mystic also suggests that, at times, Orsenna is simply ignorant of entire areas of ecological — and, by extension, political — thought.)

[originally published 5.29.07]