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Hunger: The ugly truth about the world’s oldest problem

Book review: Martín Caparrós examines the stories and data behind undernourishment

Author: Martín Caparrós
ISBN-13: 978-1612198040
Publisher: Melville House
Guideline Price: £24.53

Three women gathered around a hospital cot – a grandmother, a mother, and an aunt. The aunt leans over it and raises a baby boy. She holds him up in the air, looks at him with a strange expression on her face, as if puzzled, and then places him on his mother’s back – his chest pressed against it, his arms and legs spread. And then the mother ties him on with another cloth. And the child stays in place, ready to return home – dead.

This incident, which opens Martín Caparrós’s Hunger, occurred “a few years ago” in Niger. And both the mother, her name was Kadi, and the hunger that stole her child are familiar to historians of Ireland. They are familiar because Caparrós traces hunger in contemporary Niger, at least in part, to historical “plunder”, the crippling distortions of colonialism. And because mothers bearing dead children on their backs were in the years of Ireland’s Great Famine frequently described, often in great detail, in newspapers and the correspondence of those trying to secure relief for the hungry – so often, in fact, that a woman bearing her lost offspring became almost a type, her appearance in a locality an indicator of how bad things had become.

But famine is not Caparrós’s primary concern in this book, first published in Spanish in 2014, and updated for the first English edition: his concern is hunger, undernourishment. And to understand hunger, its causes and consequences and, most especially, to explain the experience of it, he moves from Niger to India and Bangladesh, to the United States and Argentina, on to South Sudan, and, finally, to Madagascar. Hunger, the reader is repeatedly reminded, doesn’t exist apart from the people who suffer it. And he takes an interest in those people, observing them, arguing with them as much as interviewing them, illuminating their lives and losses, the limits of their horizons in a world where “the future is a threat”.

How many people go hungry – that is, live and die undernourished?


Caparrós loves data. In 1980, the Chinese ate on average 30lbs of meat per person per year; now it is 120lbs. In the United States, cows, pigs, and chickens eat 70 per cent of all grain. The 375lbs of corn needed to create enough ethanol to fill the tank of a single car would feed a child in Zambia, Bangladesh or Mexico for an entire year. Four companies – Archer Daniels Midlands, Bunge, Cargill, Louis Dreyfuss – control more than 75 per cent of the world grain market. There is a lot of such data here.

Caparrós also loathes data, wishing at times that he could simply tell stories of the hungry and their fears, rather than take refuge in the “shelter of numbers”. In trying to figure out how many people go hungry, he takes aim at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), charging that, in 1990, to show that it was reducing “world hunger”, it retrospectively increased the number of undernourished people in 1970 from 460 million to 941 million. And then in 2011 and again in 2012 and again in 2013 it performed the same trick on the data for 1990. “We know there is nothing more variable than the past”, Caparrós remarks, “but it is unusual to see it change so quickly, and so obviously. But we also know that all changes in the past are a response to the needs of the present”. The war against hunger consists of many such nonsenses, he writes.

Still, the FAO figures are the best he can find: some 842 million people, about 11 per cent of the world’s population, go hungry. And the number of hungry people is again rising, while the world produces enough food to feed itself one-and-a-half times over.

For Caparrós, this is the great obscenity, the great ugliness: “It is no longer a question of justice or ethics but rather aesthetics … Based on what it has done with itself, humanity should have the chagrin a creator has when they take a step back, examine their work, and see a piece of shit.”

A different world

He does not deny the fact of progress: the level of legal discrimination against the least powerful – black people, homosexuals, women, the unemployed – is everywhere less than ever. Born in Argentina in the late 1950s, he remembers a world in which the past was a disaster. And acknowledging improvement serves as a reminder that the world was not always the way it is, or, as he puts, “that things – objects, behaviour, societies – happen in history, are dynamic, change, always change; that nothing lasts forever”. And so he rages at the great lie of our era of incessant change – “that change is not possible in the most basic things, in the order that orders our lives”.

Caparrós grew up believing everything was about to change: he managed “to grab on to one of the last wagons of a generation that believed that after us nothing would be the same,” that is, to adapt an adage of Moleskin Joe, that there was a good time a-coming and that we might actually live to see it. And while this book is an expression of revulsion at hunger and the order that produces it, there is hankering and hope too – a clutching after old certainties, a past when the world had a future, but more especially a conviction that one day the future will return.

Ending hunger requires imagining a very different world. Nobody, he argues, has ever put their life on the line shouting “maybe”: they have needed to believe that the future was guaranteed by some external assistance – the word of god or the march of history. In his memorable account of a journey from Chicago’s Board of Trade – a Paddy Power shop where investors gamble on grain prices – and its food banks (the Greater Chicago Food Depository helps to feed 15 per cent of the city’s population) to a McDonald’s in Binghamton, New York, he quotes approvingly the dictum of the architect Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” But the book takes its epigraph from Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Catholic charity

There is an insistent antireligious element here, first introduced when hunter gatherers plant seeds and pray to the sun – that is where the trouble all began. Thereafter, Caparrós never hears a religious dog bark that he does not stop to throw a stick at it. Sometimes, you see those dogs coming. Mother Theresa’s hospice in Kolkata offends him. It is “an extreme example of Catholic charity: to alleviate the most visible symptoms of social blasphemies without touching on the causes of those blasphemies”. Miss Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, as he calls her, stands as the archetypal do-gooder. This life is but a path to another, better one, to be reached by being meek, submissive, resigned: her hospice is a place to die clean, not to be cured. She, who proclaimed that the world is “much helped” by the suffering of the poor, opened some 500 convents in 100 countries but never opened a clinic in Kolkata. Yet he finishes with a shrug. Christopher Hitchens long ago exposed Miss Agnes and, regardless of what is said of her “corruption and lies”, nobody listens: “it is better and easier to keep thinking that she was better even than Lassie.”

The notion that words can take the place of food is an old one, found in the Old Testament and the New: “Man doth not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.”

Of course, words can’t take the place of food. Still, words can stir people to action – which always speaks louder than words.

Writing in Derry in 1889, Hugh Dorian, who, as a child in the 1840s, experienced hunger and watched the well-to-do look upon the poor as “beings of a different creation”, rendered an Irish aphorism – Ní thuigeann an sách an seang / The satiated never understand the emaciated.

In this furious book, Caparrós gives voice to the emaciated, past and present. If only we, the satiated, would listen and act.

Breandán Mac Suibhne is a Moore Fellow at NUIG