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June 07, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

The Guardian Third World Review: Voices From the South, edited by Victoria Brittain and Michael Simmons (David & Charles Inc., North Pomfret, Vt. 05053: $13.95); On Transforming Africa: Discourse With Africa's Leaders, Kofi Buenor Hadjor (Africa World Press: $7.95). Even those skeptical about the depth of altruism in glitzy famine-relief campaigns such as "We Are the World" will have to admit that they made a difference, providing temporary relief and directing attention to long-term causes of famine. What the relief efforts didn't do--and, in fairness, didn't claim to do--was solicit solutions directly from African planners, leaders and scholars. Africans were, Djibril Diallo writes in "Third World Review," "inaccurately portrayed as passive bystanders in the midst of 'a mess of their own making.' " This pattern of dependency is, in a nutshell, the central concern of these two largely anti-Western books. Most critical of America's ways is Kofi Hadjor, former press aide to the late president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.

Yet, while Hadjor sounds a decidedly anti-Western theme--proposing, for instance, that Africa should stop debt payments to the United States and use the money to develop a massive farming industry ("Ethiopia," he writes, "has enough land to support a population of 310 million--ten times its present population")--he reserves his harshest words for Africa's own leaders--the Organization of African Unity ("An institution of supplicants . . . a talking-shop designed to boost the reputations of unpopular politicians"), African professors (they have "retreated into introspection, cynicism and self-celebration") and feminists (they struggle for "equality within the elite rather than the liberation of the mass of women").

The Swan Villa, Martin Walser, translated by Leila Vennewitz (Holt: $7.95). Martin Walser is one of the first German writers whose characters aren't trapped in the unresolved past of the Nazi era. His middlemen protagonists could reside anywhere in the postwar, postindustrial West, selling their soap, real estate or high powered prose. Yet Walser's characters are far from free, for most are caught in the relentless pursuit of worldly wealth, fueling "progress" by creating more insatiable demands for ever more superfluous products. Gottleib Zurn, this novel's protagonist, "often felt like a man driving a motorboat with a hole at the bottom who has to drive fast to make the front half of the boat rise and stay out of the water. The moment he slackened speed, he would sink." Zurn's tragedy is not society, but his readiness to embrace its superficiality: After leaving his law practice to develop the once-grassy slopes of a lake into high-rise condominiums, Zurn feels depressingly underdeveloped himself, obsolete and disposable, unable to recapture his wife's attention, impress his condescending colleagues, resolve his financial difficulties.

And yet, this is ultimately a hopeful novel, for bright, warm images keep reappearing in these pages, in spite of the dark intellectualizations: Else, Zurn's dog, lies on her back on the Ping-Pong table, "rolling herself up in a lightning movement as if to see whether she had caught the gold of the morning between her paws"; Zurn walks by the lake at night, where "everything is green, green-gold, glittering and dazzling . . . and nothing seems to matter." At first, these glowing images seem incongruous. But soon, they become part of Zurn's faith, as he finds new hope in the experience of daily life. Zurn's resolution--"phenomenon is all"--unites Walser in spirit after all with dissident German intellectuals whose grander political and philosophical hopes were dashed by Hitler: "As long as something is, everything is," he concludes. "Infinity of expression through impact from the outside. So imagination does not remain inviolate. It is distorted by experience. Something can be learned. Something exquisite follows on something else."

The Arab World: Personal Encounters, Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Robert A. Fernea (Doubleday: $9.95). This is a curiously tame book about an unusually turbulent land. The Fernea's first came to Beirut during their honeymoon in 1956, when the city was a "sea-blown oasis." They retain their travelogue style even when describing the Middle East today, an editorial decision that works, for the most part, highlighting the idiosyncrasies of culture that blur when the focus is on the broader canvas of combat. Introducing us to the urban sprawl in Egypt, literary circles in Beirut, an Israeli university on the West Bank and Iraqi exiles in Cairo, the authors knock down stereotypes, from TV images of sheiks in flowing white robes signing oil agreements to young men in battle dress, shaking their machine guns aggressively at the screen.

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