After a few weeks of driving and walking around Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, you begin to feel that you have finally got to know the place. You return, maybe a year or so later, confident and assured, only to discover that many of the streets and roads that had at last grown familiar have disappeared or are no longer accessible, while others which previously did not exist at all give cause for unexpected anxiety. Buildings that - to you at least - were landmarks have been demolished; unrecognisable skyscrapers, most of them indistinguishable from those in Singapore or Dallas, have taken their place.
It is precisely this sort of progress, and the human exploitation and oppression that underlies it, that is the subject of Jeremy Seabrook's In the Cities of the South. Seabrook, however, has little interest in or sympathy for the bemused, sincere tourist or visitor - the sort of individual, he claims, who merely by his presence puts the indigenous population in a position of degrading servitude, from which humble state they are nevertheless obliged to "light up" their "tired faces . . . at the approach of each wealthy stranger, as though every such encounter were the culminating experience of a lifetime." It is those who are forced to smile that are Seabrook's subject. His book takes you everywhere, showing you everything the typical tourist misses, and one of its many absorbing ambiguities is Seabrook's own elusive role as narrator-commentator: he is, on the simplest level, a visitor to most of these cities, though he has lived in some of them as well, and on the whole he writes as though he were more at one with his subject than with his prospective readers.
Seabrook is a Marxist intellectual of the highest order. His analysis of the lot of the poor in cities as diverse as Manila, Bangkok, Bombay, Penang and Jakarta insists on an unfashionable belief in a universal working class, and hints at a corresponding optimism about universal camaraderie - even, perhaps, uprising; but the prose is of a quality that fundamentally sets it apart from typical Marxist sociological commentary. In the Cities of the South is, in any case, chiefly concerned, not with any utopian future, but with the limiting present and its relationship with the past, particularly the analogies that can be drawn between the modern cities of the South and those in Britain, such as Manchester and London, at the height of the industrial revolution.
Seabrook grew up in Manchester, and there is an autobiographical thread running through this book, as he comes to terms with the lives of his own parents and grandparents by immersing himself in the world of those who now lead similarly oppressed lives, though many thousands of miles away. He relates, for instance, that children in Dhaka "often carry food at mealtimes to older siblings working in garment factories" and goes on to explain that "the first child I met who did this brought tears of recognition to my eyes. My own mother and aunt regularly took food at midday to the shoe factory where their older brothers worked in Northampton."
The thematic movement of In the Cities of the South is towards a recognition that "We should be grateful to the poor of the slums for what they teach us, not only about our past, but the future that awaits us if we do not recognise our common fate, and act accordingly".
Reading of the threat of universal poverty and squalor, which is already in large part a reality but which can "only spread and grow" even in western urban areas, is sensibly realistic at a time when even once-principled socialists talk of the "post-Marxist" world. The mass migration from the land to the factory, the economic exploitation and no less important psychological distress caused to whole peoples who previously knew nothing but the rhythms of nature but who, for the rest of their lives, will only listen to the deadening monotony of machinery, is, of course, as much a British historical subject as a contemporary third-world issue; but no writer to my knowledge has made the point so eloquently and incisively before.
An idyllic fishing village in Penang stands as an emblem to the recent past; it is deserted now because everyone has migrated to the cities to work in factories. Sweatshops for most of the men, women and children in the cities visited by Seabrook are all the future has to offer. That is not to suggest that there is no cause for hope in these pages. One of the main strengths of In the Cities of the South, indeed, is the way Seabrook sets off individuals as representatives of everyone else in similar positions, and how the various struggles for better pay, working and living conditions, and political freedom enacted by small groups of almost heroic individuals may eventually have positive consequences for all.
But not all struggles are political. The story of Maneka, a girl born on waste ground in Bombay whose mother, shortly after her slum had been demolished, died "on the pavement among the fumes and noise of the traffic", is typical. Maneka soon got pregnant, suffered the contempt of the father's family and ended up moving to live once again with her own father, enduring as a consequence several hours' journey to work each day. Her child was born in 1993 and, we hear, the mother "was transformed" by the experience and is determined to work hard enough to ensure her little girl will not fall into the same cycle of desperation. It is only at the end of this chapter that we are told that Maneka, who has suffered so much, is still just 16 years of age.
There are many such examples of destitution recounted in In the Cities of the South, and the most remarkable fact about this very remarkable book is that each of them presents the lasting image of a uniquely frail and heroic person succeeding, against all imaginable odds, in striving for a life of virtue and dignity.
John R. Bradley founded the London Quarterly, of which he is now co-editor.
In the Cities of the South: Scenes from a Developing World
Author - Jeremy Seabrook
ISBN - 1 85984 986 5 and 081 7
Publisher - Verso
Price - £44.95 and £14.95
Pages - 303