Published by Granta as Saharan Journey (with Desert Divers)
“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge we lack. What is missing is he courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”
In his preface, Swedish born journalist, Sven Lindqvist, sums up Exterminate All the Brutes, by stating:
“This is a story, not a contribution to historical research. It is the story of a man traveling by bus through the Saharan desert and, at the same time, traveling by computer through the history of the concept of extermination. In small, sand-ridden desert hotels, his study closes in one sentence in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate all the brutes.””
In his 2005 Lettre Ulysses Award Keynote speech, Lindqvist says that his career in reportage started “with a little yellow-paged book that belonged to my Grandmother” which, when he was a boy, he saved from one of his mother’s periodic clear outs. The book was a diary by Swedish missionary Edward Sjöblom who travelled to the Belgian Congo in 1892 and travelled by boat up the Congo searching for a suitable spot to found a mission.
The graphic and horrific descriptions in Sjöblom’s diary of the treatment meted out to locals by colonists had a profound effect on Lindqvist (the diary “with all its imperfections, was much more powerful than anything I had read before, because it was about real people and real events”). Lindqvist wanted to become like Sjöblom: “[n]ot a missionary, maybe, but one who travelled the world and experienced it. I wanted to be an eyewitness to the cruelties and injustices and report on them. Like Sjöblom, I wanted to sound the alarm and appeal to world opinion.”
Lindqvist expands this story in Exterminate All the Brutes. The book’s central idea is that we forget uncomfortable truths: “the Germans have been made sole scapegoats of extermination that are actually a common European heritage” the reason being that “[w]e do not want to remember. We want genocide to have begun and ended with nazism. That is what is most comforting.”
In a Guardian profile on Lindqvist, Stuart Jeffries writes that Exterminate All the Brutes “is extraordinary for not being straightforward historical text but travel diary. [Lindqvist] wrote it while crossing the Sahara on buses and, at the same time, journeying through the history of extermination.”
Lindqvist sets out to the “desert of deserts” in Africa “carrying under one arm the core of European thought stored on an old fashioned computer”. In what Richard Gott called “an ingeniously researched exploration of the roots of European racism and genocide, skilfully presented as a travel book though time and space”, Lindqvist disappears into this desert in an attempt to create the time and distance he needs to explore and understand the material he has collected but never has the time to go through to and which Lindqvist asserts “simply tells the truth we prefer to forget.”
As Richard Gott says, Lindqvist is “not really a “travel writer” in the usual sense, but he uses the experience gained in unfamiliar locations to entice the reader into consideration of problems that are often a good deal nearer home.” (Gott and Lindqvist originally met in Bolivia in 1967 on the trail of Che Guevara’s guerrilla campaign and have been friends since.)
Lindqvist’s is burdened on his journey by the physical weight of his pack and laptop which could easily be a metaphor for the wright of the knowledge he is carrying in it. Fear overshadows his journey:
Why do I travel so much when I am so terribly frightened of traveling? Perhaps in fear we seek an increased perception of life, a more potent form of existence? I am frightened, therefore I exist. The more frightened I am, the more I exist.”
At times, this is the normal fear of a traveler setting out on a journey, a sensation soon to be replaced by elation (“I am frightened as usual. But when departure finally cannot be postponed any longer, as I stand there at dawn with my heavy pack, crouching before the leap – then I am again elated at being where I am”) or it is the fear of a physical danger – being buried in the sand (“Everything is covered with sand, my sleeping bag, my notebook, my suitcase, even my body. My eyelids are lie sandpaper against my eyeballs. The air is too thick to breathe”) or suffering from the heat.
These fears, however, could just as easily be fear of teetering on the edge of the conclusions he will draw from his understanding of the material he carries, knowing that he cannot then un-know them. Or they could be the claustrophobia he experiences from immersing himself so completely in the material or a fear of being buried under the sheer weight of the many textual references.
The travelogue makes up a small proportion of the overall text, but the fragments shine through his description of the history of extermination. And, although his prose is as sparse as the desert he describes it is no less evocative for it (“You long for trees in the desert, not just for the shade they provide, but also because they stretch up toward space”).
Making his own journey into darkness, after Conrad, Lindqvist traces a line across the blank of the heart of the Sahara. His journey begins in El Golea (almost in the geographical centre of Algeria) and follows an overland route through the desert to the town of Zinder in southern Niger, close to the Nigerian border. Although he does not visit obvious places associated with his subject such as Congo or Sudan, his ultimate goal becomes clear, neatly tying together both journeys with a firing parallel which I won’t spoil.
Lindqvist acknowledged in his Lettre Ulysses lecture, that not everyone agrees with his conclusions, not least the Belgians (“The power of truth is such that it will always produce denial”). However, there is no denying that Lindqvist tells a compelling story in an imaginative manner.
At the time of writing, Exterminate All the Brutes is published by Granta in Saharan Journey alongside Lindqvist’s other desert travelogue, Desert Divers.