Bananas

Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman

publication date: 2007
pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-1-84195-881-1

For such a slim book, Bananas took me forever to finish. And even at that slow pace, I still skimmed some parts. Why, you ask? Because Bananas was so nonsensically and enigmatically written as to be boring.

Bananas was supposed to be a history of the United Fruit Company in Central America and the world. However, Chapman didn’t even mention the founding of United Fruit until page 168. Instead, he bounced around from the 1980s to the 1880s and back again in vaguely chronological order. His use of dates was very confusing and was rarely tethered to anything meaningful like historical context or cause and effect.

Not only was Chapman’s use of dates and chronology confusing and disjointed, but his introduction and discussion of the important people in the story was just as bewildering. Chapman would introduce someone in a passage with no mention of why they were important to United Fruit and then would ignore them for dozens of pages. An example is Chapman’s treatment of the Cabot family, who were introduced in a discussion of Andrew Preston:

Socially ambitious Preston preferred to stay at home. Boston’s ‘Brahmins’ were a tight-knit bunch that ruled the city . . . . [T]hey were mostly of English background, although one leading family, the Cabots, came in 1700 from Jersey in the Channel Islands . . . . The families married well and famously, and set up dynasties: the Jefferson Coolidges, the Cabot Lodges. As such they ran the political, economic and social life of a city known as ‘Beantown’ for one of its favourite foods and the ‘Hub’ from an assumed central position in the universe. As a local toast would have it: ‘And this is good old Boston, The land of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.’

The Cabots weren’t again mentioned until seventy pages later, and even then, I still don’t understand their importance. I hope that long quote displays Chapman’s confounding and erratic writing style, including odd uses of quotation marks and unnecessary interjections.

To further confuse things, Chapman would shift between narrators. Sometimes the book was scrawled in a textbook style, with facts being relayed with little interpretation. Other times, and with no explanation, Chapman would insert his own voice and discuss events in his own life. Another long passage illustrates the confusion:

[President Anastosio] Somoza’s story was familiar: a few bandits assailed him from distant mountain hideaways. Radical priests had joined in and were sadly deluded people who should not concern themselves with politics. What they failed to grasp, Somoza went on, was that he had pitched himself against the greedy rich on behalf of the poor. As for Jimmy Carter, the US’s present leader, Somoza found himself hard pushed to remain polite. Under Carter, the White House had taken leave of its senses and opened the way for Communism.

Actually, from what I understood, the guerrillas fighting Somoza were capable of seizing important towns just a couple of hours away north along the Pan-American Highway.

Perhaps you’re thinking that passage was confusing because you aren’t reading it in context. I can assure you that context does not help anything. Almost the entire book was written like this. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I learned nothing.

2/6: many problems

Here are other reviews of the book; the first two are positive. I really don’t understand how anyone who read the book could call it a “page-turner” or “breezy but insightful,” but here you go:

A.V. Club
New York Times
Yale Global

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