Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book Review: The Translator

It's all too easy to think we know something about anything. We who hear 30-second snippets on the evening news, we who read a brief headline on Yahoo, and think we understand the world.

It's rare that we get a true insider view on world-changing events. Even rarer when a native comes forward and speaks to the complex internal situations that lead to suffering and chaos.

The Translator, by Daoud Hari is that gem of a book that is both delightful and disturbing, as this Sudanese native shares his own personal story in the midst of the conflict in Darfur. Because of his education in languages, Hari was able to escape the fate of so many of his countrymen; because of that gift, he was also able to go back in and open up the world of Sudan to the larger world.

Written in simple prose, full of humor and human insight, the book reads like a campfire tale shared between friends. Hari's descriptions of the land and the people there are full of love and passion. And yet. . .the stories of unspeakable suffering, of brutal torture and the incessant slaughter of the innocents is almost too much to bear. In one moment we delight with Hari as he and his friends play childish games in the moonlight, in the next we weep with a father driven mad by memories of his precious daughter dying on the end of a bayonet.

If anything, the greatest strength of The Translator is the humanity portrayed across the pages of this book. While Hari does speak to larger geo-political issues and the forces at play behind the conflict, his brilliance is shown in the intimate moments of quiet conversations with the boys ordered to execute him, of his sarcastic exchanges with the prison commander attempting to intimidate him, and in the sparse description of the attack on his village and the loss of his dear brother.

There is no great call to action here, no larger agenda pushing for world action; instead. Hari paints a picture of life on the ground in Sudan, of quiet people pushed into hell and yet retaining their spirit, of evil playing out in the hands of boys and generals. And yet, one cannot read this book without asking both why? and what can we do?

This is a book that every person should read; it opens up vistas both touching and heart-wrenching, it reveals the relative simplicity with which evil can take up residence and destroy a people; it also reminds us of the power of a kind word and a human touch. In the end, it took me only a day to read the book; its lessons will stick with me for a lifetime.

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