Three Famines by Tom Keneally Knopf HK$380 In this brave, comparative account of three great hungers, Australian author Tom Keneally sets out to turn prevailing misconceptions about the causes of famine on their head. The result is a provocative and disturbing chronicle of human suffering, monumental human arrogance, incompetence, prejudice, wilful denial and inhumanity on three continents. The first great hunger he examines is An Gorta Mor, the great Irish famine that started in 1845 and whose end-date remains in dispute. He then turns to the lesser-known or 'hidden' famine of Bengal in 1943-44, about which controversy still rages, and the Ethiopian famine of the 1970s and 80s. Each of these famines, despite differences of time and geography, share such uncanny similarities in cause and effect that he likens them to siblings who share the same DNA. It's impossible to think of the Irish famine without thinking of the voracious fungal disease that blighted the country's potato crop in the mid-19th century. Many still refer to An Gorta Mor as the potato famine. But Keneally's central argument is that the potato blight, like the drought in Ethiopia 140 years later and the Bengal cyclones and tidal wave of 1942, triggered loss of crop staples, but that the actual cause of the famines lies in a more complex weave of official denial, stupidity, and ideological delusion. Keneally explains in sometimes gruesome detail how millions died in Ireland, Bengal and Ethiopia, and how 'mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions and administrative incompetence were more lethal than the initiating blight, the loss of potatoes or rice or livestock or of the grain named teff'. In the Bengal famine, the least known of all the famines because its horrors were obscured by the second world war, the rice harvest in the wake of the devastating tidal wave of 1942 was only 5 per cent less than the previous one. But the remaining rice became inaccessible to millions as others stockpiled it, causing the emergency in which up to 5 million people died. So pronounced is this phenomenon across all three famines, he argues, that many experts consider 'famine' the wrong term to use. Rice was actually exported from Bengal to Ceylon during its famine as, similarly, Irish grain was sent to Britain during the Irish famine. And in Ethiopia, where in the 1980s Mengistu Haile Mariam's army habitually destroyed lives and imperilled the supplies of food, one Ethiopian refugee describes how that army burned down 16 houses, shot people and raided corn and coffee. 'There was no hunger before this.' Keneally witnessed at first-hand the effects of starvation in Ethiopian victims during the 1980s when, as Ethiopia waged a vicious civil war against rebels in its provinces, he made several visits to its northern province, Eritrea, now an independent state. It was this experience, coupled with seeing the massive amounts of money that was being lavished on armaments by Mengistu, that compelled him to write about it. Famine struck Ethiopia under Haile Selassie in the 1970s, ensuring his downfall. It struck again in the 80s under Mengistu, whose Marxist policies magnified the effects of drought-induced crop loss. Mengistu's famine became the most widely publicised famine ever in the wake of Bob Geldof's 1985 Live Aid concert which galvanised Western aid. In recalling his own experiences in Eritrea at a time when Ethiopia was flooded with aid agencies, and Mengistu was subverting aid for his ideologically driven resettlement programmes, Keneally probes complex questions about the nature of food aid then and now. Given that Medecins San Frontieres, which criticised Mengistu's policies, was refused entry into Ethiopia even as other agencies operated there, he asks how far NGOs should go in collaborating with a tyrannous regime. Keneally wryly notes too that nearly 30 years on, aid to Ethiopia has failed to develop the country beyond subsistence, and its current leader, Meles Zenawi, continues to deny Unicef estimates of the numbers of Ethiopians who remain 'chronically food insecure' and to punish any food agencies taking a political stance. 'It seems that there is a virus in Ethiopian government,' he writes, 'that transfers itself from regime to regime.' Of great hunger itself he writes, in sober, unemotional prose, of the swelling of the belly, the breakdown of muscle, heart and liver damage, profound depression and a preoccupation with food so intense 'that it has the power to overturn the starving person's normal morality and sense of self'. Vying with malaria, dysentery, dropsy, typhus, and yellow fever to name but a few disease, were pigs and dogs which made short work of the weak. He writes of feudal systems of land ownership and of how in famine, poor people sell their animals and possessions and cut back on food, especially for women, thereby hastening their demise. Men abandoned wives and children or sold them into prostitution. Others felt so ashamed at their own deterioration, they chose death over undignified foraging. It is difficult to say which is the more chilling in Three Famines - Keneally's evocative description of the gruesome self-devouring effects of starvation, its attendant shame and social destruction, or his meticulous detailing of the mindsets of governments and prominent individuals. Few individuals have been so deeply reviled in Irish history than British treasury official, Sir Charles Trevelyan, administrator of government relief in Ireland, who by dint of his unyielding devotion to Malthusian and free-market principles, and his belief that famine was divine retribution on the 'moral evil' of the Irish, became the Great Satan of the Irish famine. In the case of the Bengal famine, Keneally indicts the inaction of British viceroy Lord Linlithgow and ponders the culpability of wartime leader Winston Churchill, whose racist attitude towards Indians - 'a beastly people with a beastly religion' - has been documented in Madhusree Mukerjeee's Churchill's Secret War, and in Richard Toye's Churchill's Empire. Like Trevelyan did with the Irish, Churchill condemned the Indians for 'breeding like rabbits' and, also like Trevelyan, he believed the food crisis was an exaggeration, a figment of the Bengali imagination. Keneally's narrative brings home just how palpably Churchill's attitude towards the Bengal famine mirrored those of Trevelyan and the British establishment in Ireland where there was also an assumption that the people had brought it on themselves, either by sexual irresponsibility or by disloyalty to the Britons who had done so much for them. But of all the 'villains' he writes about in Three Famines, none is more unambiguously so than Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and his successor, Mengistu, a lifelong admirer of Stalin. Both consistently denied the existence of famine in the country, even as its horrific evidence was at their very door. Neither bothered to visit famine areas, and Mengistu's wily manipulation of Western food aid and sympathies was matched only by his neglect and brutality. Keneally, who wrote the Booker Prize-winning Schindler's List, excels at portraying the individual experience inside the grand sweep of history and Three Famines is no exception. He argues that we have not seen the last of famine, that many famines remain hidden, even though it is viewed as a phenomenon of the past. In a short final chapter he assesses other great famines to show a recurring pattern of denial, politics and ideology. From 20th-century famines in Russia, China, Biafra, Malawi and Mozambique to the 21st-century crisis in Darfur, and, most invisible of all, in Zimbabwe, he brings home the fact that famine 'has not had its last ride'.