"Borderlines", by Michela Wrong

Book Review

“Borderlines”, by Michela Wrong

Plus a brief interview

17th September, 2015 

By Dawit Mesfin

Borderlines is Michela Wrong’s first novel and it tells the story of North Darrar (ND), a fictional country Eritreans will immediately recognise as very like their own. It is a thoroughly researched, legally mesmerising and philosophically challenging account, which keeps the reader in suspense from start to finish.

The story is told through the eyes of Paula Shackelton, who plunges into law in search of intellectual rigour and somehow ends up joining a Washington-based law firm which does good work in Africa. Paula is appointed by Winston Peabody III -- an idealistic African-American and intriguing character in his own right -- to help him represent the government of ND, which is embroiled in a border arbitration case with its giant neighbour, a country bearing some uncanny similarities to Ethiopia. 

Paula is described by one of her local friends in Lira [Asmara for us], as one of those stupid foreigners who F*** up Africa with their good intentions. Winston, on the other hand, has appointed himself attack dog for the president of ND, regarded as an international pariah. Winston almost seems to parody both himself and his client at times, as if tacitly realising that his role is to camouflage the contradiction of what ND (Eritrea) is pretending to be.

For those who are not familiar with the author’s writing, Borderlines is a courtroom drama that is conspicuously written to expose the manoeuvres that take place behind closed doors within international organisations. For the artful and studious reader, one who is interested in the history of the Horn of Africa, Borderlines is a continuation of Wrong’s pre-existing literary work; this time in a novel format.  Like her previous book, 'I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation', the new book highlights a certain irrationality prevalent in Lira (Asmara) and which is a feature of intrigues in the region.  However, it must be noted that Borderlines, unlike her previous book, is fictional: it is written to entertain the reader while delivering some serious lessons in the process. 

Michela Wrong has managed to turn the politics of a border dispute into an exciting drama which deals with the complex work of the Boundary Commission, machinations within law offices, manipulations of the governments represented in court cases and most of all, the astute reflections of the affected people. While probing the motivations of the ruling elite, it also reveals the desires and disinclinations of average citizens, movingly depicting the stories of former combatants who have come apart at the seams, conveying the anguish of living among those who are afraid of their own shadows and more. 

Perhaps most impressive are the insights Paula gleans from her relationships with former freedom fighters, who are trying their best to come to terms with their current situation and wondering what has gone wrong with their lives after so many years of dedication to the liberation cause. Borderlines is studded with poignant narratives of a post-battlefield nation-state whose skies may be filled with stars but whose light has yet to reach the population.  If, on the one hand, the book exposes Eritrea's sorry mien and manners, its depiction of Darrar (Ethiopia for us) is hardly flattering.

The government of Eritrea will certainly feel affronted by the frank depiction of the prevailing reality in the country –which so many characters in the book are shown trying to leave - while the neighbours from the south will react negatively towards the exposure of their duplicitous tactics.  However, ordinary citizens of both countries will greatly enjoy the book because it cleverly lifts the veil on how duelling governments mismanage the politics of cartography.



Borderlines, by Michela Wrong, Fourth Estate, 352 pages


A Brief Interview with Michela Wrong

Q. The storyline in “Borderlines” is clearly based on the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia.  Basically, that very dispute which is based on borderlines not only caused horrendous casualties, but also continues to put the lives of tens of thousands of Eritreans and Ethiopians in jeopardy.  Why did you depict that story in novel format?

A. The main inspiration for Borderlines is certainly the Eritrea-Ethiopia war, but it’s not the only one. I covered the start of that war as a reporter for the Financial Times and then monitored the arbitration process that followed, because I was interested in the idea that a border conflict can be resolved by legal means, rather than through violence. Which essentially means handing the peace deal over to Western lawyers – because those with the necessary international legal expertise tend to be Western. But the Eritrea-Ethiopia war was only one of the inspirations. The dispute over the oil-rich Sudanese town of Abyei was another, so was the disagreement between Cameroon and Nigeria over the Bakassi Peninsula. As we all know, the colonial borders drawn by imperial powers were quixotic and self-serving. With the discovery of unexpected mineral, oil and gas reserves, they are likely to keep being challenged. So the question becomes: is international arbitration the most effective way of solving these disputes.

Why a novel? Because if I had told the story in non-fiction form – and I did think of doing that – it would have been a pretty dry account, read by only a few hundred people. By telling the same story in the form of a thriller I hope to reach readers who would never normally pick up a book about Africa, or the law, and show them why this stuff matters.  Ironically, fiction can make things real in a way non-fiction never does.  

Q. How did you come to invent Paula Shackleton in your story – a somewhat naïve but well-meaning individual who tried her best to assist in defining a contested border which caused a major war, but later, dejected, ran away from that involvement?

A. Paula Shackleton was a very easy person for me to imagine. I have met thousands of young men and women like her, who go to Africa hoping to do good, not quite realizing what they are getting themselves into, perhaps, and come away sometimes sadder but definitely wiser. The theme of a journey that delivers far more than the traveller expects is a classic in both literature and film-making: it’s the eternal Quest story. She’s perhaps a little more world weary than some of those types – she’s already been through a lot by the time she gets to Lira – but she definitely belongs to that category of people who believe that if you are smart and committed enough, you can make a difference.

Q.The Guardian had to say this about your book: “Borderlines is a novel about relationships, the mysteries they contain, and the ways in which – when they go wrong and leave scars borne across generations – it is often for the most prosaic, petty reasons. This is as true of the relationships between people in the novel as it is for those between governments and their citizens, between nations.”  Do you agree? (if yes, please explain).

A. I didn’t write the review, so I’m not sure I can explain! But I’m guessing what the reviewer is alluding to are the many moments in the novel when momentous events turn on personal factors or very small details. I get exasperated with the kind of person who always analyses world events, historical turning points, in terms of grand, minutely-plotted masterplans. Our own humdrum lives don’t follow those patterns, why should world events? I tend towards the cock-up rather than the conspiracy theory of history, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say: the conspiracy that then gets cocked up! So yes, there are masterplans, but they never go quite as expected.

Q. The story revolves around Winston Peabody III who fought hard on behalf of the leader whose distressing details he decided to gloss over. Interesting stand! Haven't you glorified such a character a bit too much?

A. Different people react in different ways to Winston. You may think he’s depicted as a bit of a hero, other readers have told me they found him a pompous pain in the neck and that’s no accident. I meant him to be a nuanced figure. Inspirational and high-minded on a good day, infuriating on a bad. Idealistic to the point of naivety: like the classic Marxist and many an aid worker, he believes that longterm outcomes can justify all sorts of short term outrages. That’s a fairly ruthless position to hold and one that certainly chills Paula. By the end he comes a cropper and I think most readers will close the book feeling a little sorry for him.

Q. The story also partly revolves around a ruling in The Hague which was of no consequence, doesn’t it? What is a ruling good for if it cannot be enforced? Confused Paula, who cared deeply about the case but not for the clients, knew that. Why quit when most needed? She simply checked out. Did her cause ever possess a genuine dimension at all?

A. Without wishing to give away the ending, she quits because she can’t go back without putting herself in danger. Of course the case was 100 per cent genuine for her. She’s a lawyer, she’s programmed and trained to believe that agreeing to a set of very precise rules can bring societies – in this case neighbouring countries -- order and stability. And I think all of us, even those of us who aren’t lawyers, understand what it is to be intensely absorbed, almost obsessed, with a task and then, at the end, to stand back from it, reassess, and wonder whether it mattered very much at all, and feel a sneaking fear that one might just have made a bad situation worse.

Q. Dr Berhane, one of the characters in the story, said the following towards the end of the story as he encountered Paula, the main character in the story, at the British Museum: ‘Intellectuals like me are out of tune with our era.  We sound like bad violin-players to many ears. Revolutionary regimes have no interest in examining the past.’ He also mentioned the fact that there are thousands like him in diaspora – embittered, grey-haired veterans, still dreaming the dreams of young boys. Although his words are marked by melancholy, I want to ask you if they represent the current reality of many Eritreans in diaspora.

A.        I think that’s the way a lot of Eritreans of a certain generation – the generation that either fought in the Liberation Struggle themselves or financially supported it or worked for it while based abroad, feel these days. When I talk to my friends in the community I sense a deep sadness that so much goodwill, so much effort, so much passion, gave birth to a regime that Eritrean youngsters are now desperate to escape. What a sour process of disillusionment that has been, what a sorry end to the story. The pain runs so deep it has made it hard for members of the diaspora to work out where mistakes were made, what lessons need to be learned, and focus on what needs to be done next. They are tired, they feel they already did their bit and all for what? But that’s what must be done now. Because the Eritrea that currently exists is not the Eritrea anyone fought and died for.