The power of the anecdote

On the effectiveness of anecdotes and understatement in conveying catastrophic events.

In the latest edition of The London Review of Books, James C. Scott reviews three books about China's disastrous 1958–61 famine.

How can you possibly convey the horror of a famine which led to the deaths of an estimated 30–45 million people, and whose primary cause was the political ideology of an all-powerful leader (Mao)? Scott takes a leaf out of W.G. Sebald's book by including an understated anecdote that gives us pause for thought:

In the Great Leap Famine, the Entomological Research Institute of China's Academy of Sciences helpfully supplied lists of the protein and fat content of many insects: dried larva of the corn borer, dried fly maggot, dried dung beetle, termites, locusts and silkworm pupae, together with recipes for their preparation.

This sentence, complete with Sebaldian silkworm reference, could have been lifted straight out of The Rings of Saturn. In many ways, a matter-of-fact aside about bureaucratic advice on maggot and silkworm nutrition tells us far more about the famine than detailed descriptions and statistics ever could.

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks
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