Andrew Mueller, I Wouldn’t Start From Here: The 21st Century and Where It All Went Wrong (U.S. edition, 2009, Soft Skull)
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I Wouldn’t Start From Here is aptly titled, because you should skip Robert Young Pelton’s introduction. It’s a rant on how Americans need to read this book because we are all so lame and hate foreigners. Pelton has all the charm of someone who bought a copy of Letâ€™s Go Thailand and a backpack the summer before law school, and now wants everyone to know how worldly he is because he smoked dope with a bunch of Canadians at a hostel on the Khe Sahn Road.Â Well, if Americans hate funny things so much, why did we elect as our president a self-described â€œskinny kid with a funny name,â€ the son of a Kenyan, with a grandmother and half-siblings who live in a more-or-less traditional Kenyan village?
And yes, Robert Young Pelton had to know about the election when the introduction went to press, because Andrew Mueller writes about the revelry of November 4, 2008 for this edition. (The book was originally published in 2007 in Australia.) So skip his introduction, unless you are an American who believes that you are superior to all other Americans because you sometimes read the news on Guardian.co.uk.
The introduction set me up to hate Muellerâ€™s book, but I’m glad that I read on. Mueller has a more open take on the world. He is an Australian who lives in London but travels around the world covering a mixture of trouble spots and rock music, sometimes on assignment, sometimes for the heck of it. He has enough of a reputation that he got to drink with Bono in the Great Voiceâ€™s New York City apartment. Â And yet, Mueller appreciates the lives of ordinary people all over the world. I Wouldnâ€™t Start from Here is a collection of stories about places where the people are overwhelmingly poor and proud, struggling against illegitimate leaders or outside interlopers. He genuinely wants to know whatâ€™s happening and why so many places are so screwed up. His warmth and enthusiasm come through, even when he ends up doing a stint in prison in Cameroon for suspected spying. (It helps that his incarceration is part of some political maneuvering, so his experience is more amusing than harrowing.)
Even though most of the places Mueller visits are small, their battles affect superpower policies. Whether itâ€™s Northern Ireland, Iraq, or Taiwan, the implications of local actions become global. And the people on the ground know that. Unfortunately, they don’t always know how to take the next step. One of the saddest lines he writes is about Abkhazia , a former Soviet Republic on the Black Sea where the people desperately want international recognition as an independent nation rather than as part of Georgia. Mueller goes to the beach at an old resort there. â€œIt was neither the first place, nor the first time, that Iâ€™d contemplated land that the people upon it had pledged that they would die for, and wondered why, if they loved it so much, they didnâ€™t keep it tidy,â€ he writes.
But hereâ€™s what disappointed me: Robert Young Peltonâ€™s smug introduction inspired more passion than anything in Andrew Muellerâ€™s book, probably because of the arrangement of the stories. Instead of organizing the chapters by geography or chronology, Mueller goes for theme. The stories flit from Afghanistan in 2003 to Kosovo in 2004 to Albania back in 2003; the link between the Afghanistan and Kosovo chapters is regime change, while the link between Kosovo and Albania is the nasty comments about Albanians that Mueller hears from some drunken Kosovars. It was an interesting idea, but the result lacked narrative tension. I found it very easy to put Muellerâ€™s book down. I was always happy when I got back to it, but I never felt a need to stay up all night to get to the very end. Maybe because I knew what would happen next: people are fighting, possibly for good reason, but their troubles have no sign of ending.
Structure matters. It matters in communities, and it matters in books. I really wish Mueller had chosen a different method of organization, because heâ€™s a fine writer telling some fascinating stories.