Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance by Matthew Kneale
The Winter family's disastrous experience is a microcosm of the relationship between the world's haves and have-nots.
By almost any measure, Toby Chisolm is a good man -- successful businessman, faithful husband, caring father. But what do we make of his occupation as a salesman for an arms company that does business with regimes notorious for human rights abuses? When the army of a client African regime brutally quashes a civilian protest, does Toby bear responsibility for those killed and maimed? In his short fiction collection Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance, British novelist Matthew Kneale meditates on our often unexamined complicity in the misfortunes of the wretched of the earth.
You might expect the always deadening vice of righteousness to bedevil such a project, but Kneale is too good of a writer to commit such an offense. The dominant tone in these stories is largely (and refreshingly) contemplative, not the holier-than-thou indignation typical of anti-globalization polemics. Eschewing the vicious caricatures of Westerners, Kneale's characters tend to be sensitive, well-meaning, and introspective. In short, these stories suggest a temperament marked by a keen sense of proportion.
Moral ambiguity, central to this sensibility, is best dramatized in the collection's lead story, "Stone." The Winters is a well-to-do British family whose dream vacation to China turns into a nightmare when it finds itself abetting the cruel practices of a police state. From the moment the Winters decamp from their hellish bus trip, Jiao, a suspicious-looking local, latches on to them, like an unwanted houseguest oblivious to his intrusion. When Chloe Winter loses her jewels, her husband, Guy, is convinced that Jiao has pilfered them. The Chinese authorities promptly elicit Jiao's forced confession, which is, of course, standard procedure in an authoritarian state. His likely fate: a gulag-style prison. The belated realization that the jewels were misplaced by Guy fills the Winters with moral anguish. But returning to a bureaucratic system sure of its infallibility seems unwise, and so, fearing retribution from angry locals, they make for home. With the passage of time, however, this traumatic experience becomes for the Winters "Something far away, that was not quite real, and that could not touch them."
The Winter family's disastrous experience is a microcosm of the relationship between the world's haves and have-nots. Western tourists, seeking adventure in exotic lands, have the luxury of retreating to their sanctuaries in prosperous countries when confronted with the harsh realities of life in the Third World. More than voyeurs, it seems we are now participants in our reality TV-like adventures in the world's most frightening places. Of course, this dynamic is the result of the prevailing geopolitical arrangement, where rich states, regardless of their intentions, often leave ruin in their wake in their dealings with developing countries. Lest we forget, this is an arrangement with roots in the colonial and imperials eras, which was the subject of Kneale's Whitbread Award-winning historical novel English Passengers (2001). It tells the story of Brtain's colonial exploits in Australia and the extinction of aboriginal Tasmanians in the 19th century. To borrow from Rudyard Kipling, Kneale seems to doubt whether the twain of East and West will ever meet on truly equal footing - free of the prejudice and will to dominate that has hitherto characterized their relationship.
The story of Benny Gregg, who marries a young peasant woman while traveling in Chinese Central Asia, addresses the theme of domination head on. Divorced, middle-aged, overweight, and generally unattractive, Benny is deserving of pity. Lured by the prospects of life in the U.S.(Dallas, Texas, specifically), Mina, an employee at a local hotel, marries Benny just days after meeting him -- a union readily encouraged by her parents, who are well aware of the hopelessness she faces in her native land. Blinded by jealousy, Benny soon makes Mina a prisoner, locking her up in his suburban house. This fictional tale is no doubt based on the real-life phenomenon of mail-order-brides. Benny constantly compares the dovish Mina to his assertive ex-wife Dana, who divorced him years ago. It seems the will to power that animates world politics even contaminates the intimate relationships of people like Benny and Mina.
The West's indifference to what the French writer Frantz Fanon dubbed the wretched of the earth is a major reason why women like Mina take such desperate measures. The collection's slightest piece, "Pills," tells the story of Mensulu and her sick daughter Almaz, who travel several miles by foot under the scorching Ethiopian sun to request assistance from Dan and Lisa, British backpackers staying in a local village. In a short dialogue at the end, we learn that Dan has given Mensulu his plastic box of aspirins in an attempt to get rid off what he sees as nagging supplicants. "I wish they wouldn't do that," he says, as if their abject destitution is a matter of choice. "You shouldn't have given her anything," Lisa tells him, adding, "If you hadn't give her anything, she might have taken her to a doctor. Besides, we might need them ourselves." There's no mistaking the searing indictment intended here. But given its not-so-subtle message, the story lacks that multi-layered, allegorical texture that characterizes the work's finest pieces.
Kneale's stories about the moral triangulations of upscale Londoners also lack the depth and insight of his best internationally themed pieces. The characters in these stories are often one-dimensional, seemingly created for the purpose of conveying the author's social criticism. Kneale is at his best when he resists the didactic impulse that often afflicts socially engaged novelists, who in their work invite us to grapple with the great inequities of our time. Kneale deserves praise for lending his significant talents to chronicling the struggles of the world's poor. One wishes more contemporary writers would do the same, instead of preoccupying themselves with solipsistic pursuits, like the innovations of form. Kneale wants us to "think what we are doing," as Hannah Arendt once put it. It's a call we should all heed in this age of plenty.