Sunday, 12 April 2020

The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola: a book review

French author Emile Zola (1840 – 1902) was above all a social observer. His works provide a window into the nineteenth century. The Ladies Paradise, first published in 1883, is a sociological study of the time disguised within an exceptional novel. 
The novel uses the lives of two principal characters – Mouret and Denise – to illustrate societal dislocations as a new order slowly destroys the old order. This includes the suffering of people unable to adjust and make way for the new and the hold outs hanging on to the past as if their entire being depended on it. 
Mouret is a new breed of businessman (entrepreneur?) radically transforming retail trade in Paris. He is powerful, focused and hard working. He is also used to getting what he wants out of life, including women. Few obstacles were strong enough to challenge the march of Mouret's vision in creating an universal department store selling all manner of things; that in an age of shops specializing in individual trades. For example,  one shop sold lace while another sold velvet and yet a third sold knick-knacks. None sold all three under one roof – that is until Mouret's store, The Ladies Paradise.
Denise is a poor, country girl who finds herself not only struggling to survive in the big city but also in the politics and chicanery of employees at Mouret's store. With a little help from Mouret, Denise survives a brutal initiation at the Ladies Paradise and starts to make her presence felt. (Mouret simply wants to add Denise to his list of conquests.) 
Life of course never moves in a straight line. Neither does a good novel. 
Over time, along with his obsession of growing his department store, Mouret's develops an unhealthy obsession with conquering Denise. Meanwhile, Denise has gathered all the wiles of any Parisian noblewoman and innocently uses Mouret's infatuation to influence the evolution of the Ladies Paradise. 
Zola is a master in symbolism and the novel contains notable use of the tool. The novel is written in rich, descriptive prose very different from the brief 'no extras included' copy writing in fashion today. While The Ladies Paradise will appeal to the analytical reader looking to obtain insights into the human psyche and society it is also a simple story of a young country girl out to survive in the glittering big city. 
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Corona Covid-19 pandemic: death knell for the post-war world order?

Once upon a time the world – or at least the Free World - was led by Reagan, Thatcher and Mitterand. Leaders with presence, standing and most important of all, respect. They were even respected by opponents.
British Prime Minister Thatcher, US President Reagan, French President Mitterrand and
West German Chancellor Schmidt at an international summit meeting (L to R)
During those times the US and its likeminded 'friends,' e.g. Britain and France, ran the world using a combination of bribery and force. They lorded over other lesser nations through a series of interlocking multilateral security arrangements and an economic institutional framework comprising of entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.  
In a nutshell, that was the post World War Two world order.
But those were different times. The developed world had money and delivered on promises. Other countries believed them.
The US, as the undisputed leader of the 'Free World,' provided a security blanket for its satellite states. In return for ceding a part of their national sovereignty to the US, the US provided clear leadership, especially in times of crisis.  
That was the 1980s. Much has changed in the ensuing four decades.
The Berlin Wall - the symbolic Iron Curtain dividing the world's two Superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union) - came down in 1991. That same year the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) morphed – nay collapsed – and became the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). (The CIS structure was a graceful way for the USSR to exit the Russian Empire's historic obligations and focus on saving Russia itself.)
Socialism all but died with the Soviet Union. Today all countries engage in private enterprise and global trade. Meanwhile Socialism has been discredited though significant parts of socialist philosophy have made their way into mainstream thought, e.g. public healthcare and social safety nets.
China's Belt and Road Initiative reflects China's aspirations as a global trading power
As for the global economy, the US is no longer the undisputed master. To be sure, the US Dollar remains king but its throne is a little shaky.
In the past it was said, "If the US sneezes then the world catches a cold." Today, if the US sneezes, the rest of the world simply says, "Bless You" and moves on. The risk of catching a cold is remote – at least not an intense life threatening cold resulting in mass unemployment.
In 2020 the communist party managed People's Republic of China (PRC) has the world's largest economy. Based on data released by the IMF, World Bank and the CIA, China's economy is significantly larger than its closest rival. Indeed, China's gross domestic product (GDP) surpasses the GDP of the combined European Union (EU) nations.
The deterioration in the US position has not been only in the economic domain.
Extraordinary leaders create and husband prestige. Prestige is an invisible halo which adds to the 'je ne sais quoi' aura of rulers. It is built up over decades but can be lost quickly. 

American prestige reached its peak during the first Iraq war with Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Powell's 'Shock and Awe' tactics of overwhelming force. Since 1991 a series of events have diminished US global standing.
Militarily, the downtrend started with the 1993 failed US intervention in Somalia, Operation Restore Hope and the casualties suffered in the Battle of Mogadishu. Then came the 9/11 attack, which taking place on US domestic soil was a watershed moment. The subsequent War on Terror, especially the Iraq war and the present scramble to exit Afghanistan, did little to help stem the dissipation of US prestige.
Simultaneously a succession of other minor events, though not as individually significant as the 9/11 attack, cumulatively resulted in tarnishing America's sheen. These include the US federal government shutdown in 2018 – 2019 (35 days) and 1995 – 1996 (26 days) and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Despite the signs of decay, many still placed the mantle of leadership squarely on the US and its small coterie of European friends. However, with recent events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic it has become increasingly clear the US and its 'friends' no longer rule the roost.
In its management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has seen the US's dysfunctional soul. While state governors are at loggerheads with the federal government over steps to contain the crisis the US Covid-19 death toll and infection numbers rise uncontrollably. As of April 2, 2020 US deaths attributed to Covid-19 have surpassed China, the original epicentre of the virus.
Through an unending sea of social media content, the world has witnessed the complete disarray in the US (and most of Western Europe) caused by the pandemic. Most revealing are not the lack of resources available to these governments' in tackling the virus but more so the lack of national leadership and policy implementation through state bureaucracies.
The world is used to headlines decrying poor governance, weak infrastructure; limited resources, etc. Such news headlines are common across large swathes of the world. However, they are more normally reserved for parts of Africa or developing Asia than for the US or Europe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has hastened post war global structural changes. The US and Europe, though still powerful, are less relevant international players. 

Following a steady erosion of economic and military power the irreparable loss of reputational prestige due to the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, neither the US nor Europe are able to provide global leadership. For example, there will be no Group of Seven summit resulting in a Baker Plan or issuance of Brady Bonds to save the world's economy from the ravages of the Covid-19 catastrophe. It's every nation for herself.
Until further notice, the world suffers a leadership vacuum.
China may vie to fill the position but it's not ready yet - perhaps in a few decades. More likely, second tier regional powers like India, Russia and Turkey will temporarily fill the void in their respective neighborhoods until a more stable arrangement is reached. 
No matter what the coming new world order looks like, one fact is clear: Trump, Boris and Macron cannot fill the shoes of Reagan, Thatcher or Mitterrand.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at