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A Parable Of International Development From Dave Eggers

Mar 18, 2019
Originally published on March 18, 2019 8:49 am

In 12 days, there will be a parade to celebrate a road unifying two regions of a country torn apart by a decades-long civil war. That is, if two contractors are able to construct the road in time.

That's the premise of Dave Eggers' new novel The Parade, a slim meditation on the difficulties of global development and aid work. The story follows two men — we know them only as Four and Nine — who work for a faceless corporation, tasked with paving this highway while making as few waves as possible.

Nine is the advance scout, sent to clear the path, while Four operates the machine that actually paves the road. But they don't exactly approach the job the same way.

"The two guys have very different ideas about what their work is and why they're there," Eggers says in an interview. "One of them [Four] just wants to do the work and leave and go home, and the other [Nine] sort of wants to immerse himself in the local culture. And both positions are sort of inherently fraught just by their presence in this country."


Interview Highlights

On the contrast between Nine and Four

Nine is on a vacation, almost. He's an adventurer. He thinks: Oh, I'm going to soak all this up, and I'm going to meet everyone I can, and be helpful where I can, and I'm going to indulge the local culture and food. ... But everywhere he goes, he sort of sows chaos, and even though he thinks he's doing the right thing by engaging. But Four has been in many similar situations, and is a veteran of this work. And so he just says: Our job is to do the work, touch as few lives as possible in that way, engage as little as possible, and get out. ... Those are the rules from the company. And so he's very rigid, you know, and very businesslike. And the work of Nine just drives him absolutely insane.

And so the tension between the two of them is sort of, I think, supposed to be symbolic of how a lot of people — whether it's working with NGOs, or contractors, or even military — work abroad. But ultimately, it's not really about either one of these guys. And the legacy that they leave behind is definitely fraught.

On the episode where Four sees a local boy blocking the road

The work that Nine is supposed to be doing is making sure that there aren't 7- or 8-year-old boys standing in the middle of the road. But Nine has disappeared again. And there is this boy standing in the middle of the road. Four honks and flashes the lights and everything, but the boy doesn't move. And ultimately, he has to shut the machine down, which is its own issue, and jeopardizing the day's work. And he has to go out and think about: Where does this boy belong? His parents aren't anywhere near, and there's no family, there's nothing. And for the first time in his career, he has to actually touch a local citizen — this boy — and carry him to where he thinks he's supposed to be. But of course, they start entering a forest, which is heavily mined. And he thinks, like: Well, here I am, I think I'm helping, but I'm walking this boy into a mined forest. It struck me how insanely complicated sometimes it is to engage.

On talking to contractors who work in foreign countries

Eggers: I have a lot of friends, actually, that work abroad and have to sort of go in, and try to figure out the way that business is done there, and get a contract, and do that work, and then leave. And they're almost invariably very cavalier about it. It's always a bit of an adventure, and this wild story they can tell. And they come back without really having gained a whole lot of insight into the larger context of their work. And so it's always been just interesting to me when this expertise is sort of dropped in, and all these people are dropped in, and build something that might last centuries, or might change drastically the lives of hundreds or thousands or millions of people, and then the people that built these things are gone.

Martin: Or it might make life worse? Like, did any of these people return and realize that the thing that they built, the thing that they went in to do, actually didn't improve things for the local population — that it did have an adverse effect?

Eggers: Yeah, and you know, it's — in this case, Four and Nine are being used. They are tools. And the design is not apparent to them, but they are pawns in it, as are the local population. But none of this is visible when they go in. And I wanted to be kind of unclear whether or not Four knows. Has he done this many times, and he knows the risks, and he knows the possible implications; but for him, it's a job, and it's not for him to guess at what the larger outcomes will be, and the consequences of his work. And I think that, you know, that has to be the position of the vast majority of contractors, and the vast majority of these situations, is that that they can't guess at, and they can't overthink, or even think too much about what will come of their work. Because for them, maybe it would just be a rabbit hole that they'd never emerge from. And ultimately they have to fix a pipeline, or build one, and then go back home. And how that turns out is not their concern.

Sydney Harper and Eric McDaniel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a matter of days, there will be a parade to celebrate a road unifying the two regions of a country torn apart by civil war, that is if two contractors are able to construct the road in time. This is the plot of Dave Eggers' new novel. It's titled "The Parade." And it's something of a meditation on the ethics of international development work. The story follows two men. We know them only as Four and Nine. The men work for a faceless corporation tasked with paving the highway.

Nine is new to the work, right? And he's...

DAVE EGGERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: He is - he's enthusiastic. He's like this guy who's excited to be there. And he wants a holistic experience. He wants to meet the local population. He wants to, you know, eat all the food that he's not supposed to eat. How does that compare to how Four sees this work?

EGGERS: Well, yeah. Nine is on a vacation almost.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Right.

EGGERS: He's an adventurer. He thinks, oh, I'm just going to soak all this up. And I'm going to meet everyone I can and be helpful where I can. And I'm going to, you know, indulge in the local culture and food. And he's meant to be there just as somebody that clears the road and makes sure every - there's no obstacles for Four while he's paving.

MARTIN: Right. We should just say...

EGGERS: And...

MARTIN: ...Four is the guy who drives this big roller that actually does the work of making the road. And Nine, the kind of party guy, is riding this four-wheeler out ahead to look for interference. It's his job to actually look around.

EGGERS: Yeah. But everywhere he goes, he sort of sows chaos and even though he thinks he's doing the right thing by engaging. And - but Four has been, you know, in many similar situations. And he's a veteran of this work. And so he just says, our job is to do the work - touch as few lives as possible in that way, engage as, you know, as little as possible and get out. And...

MARTIN: And those are the rules.

EGGERS: ...I don't know if he had wanted...

MARTIN: Those are the rules.

EGGERS: Those are the rules...

MARTIN: Yeah.

EGGERS: ...From the company. And so he's very rigid, you know, and very business-like. And the work of Nine just drives him absolutely insane. And so the tension between the two of them is sort of, I think, you know, supposed to be symbolic of how a lot of people, whether it's working with NGOs or contractors or even military employees and staff, work abroad. But ultimately, it's not, you know, really about either one of these guys. And the legacy that they leave behind is definitely fraught.

MARTIN: You could have told this story a few different ways in terms of voice and perspective. But you chose to look at it through Four and his own myopic view that then is forced to kind of expand. His aperture kind of grows as the story evolves. And he starts being forced to look to his peripheral vision not just in the straight line that's ahead of him as he paves this road. And at one point, he sees a boy. Can you describe how that interaction changes him?

EGGERS: Well, there's - you know, the work that Nine is supposed to be doing is, you know, making sure that there aren't 7- or 8-year-old boys standing in the middle of the road. But Nine has disappeared again. And there is this boy standing in the middle of the road. And Four honks and flashes the lights and everything, but the boy doesn't move.

And ultimately, he has to shut the machine down, which is, you know, its own issue and jeopardizing the day's work. And he has to go out and think about, where does this boy belong? His parents aren't anywhere near him. There's no family. There's nothing.

And for the first time in his career, he has to actually touch a local citizen, this boy, and carry him to where he thinks he's supposed to be. But, of course, they start entering a forest, which is heavily mined. And he thinks like, well, here I am. I think I'm helping. But I'm walking this boy into a mined forest. It struck me just how insanely complicated it is sometimes to engage.

MARTIN: Did you get to talk to any contractors or former contractors for this?

EGGERS: Yeah. I have a lot of friends actually that work abroad and have to sort of go in and try to figure out the way that business is done there and get a contract and sort of - and do that work and then leave. And they're almost invariably very cavalier about it. It's always a little bit of an adventure and this wild story they can tell. And they come back without really having gained a whole lot of insight into the larger context of their work.

And so it's always been just interesting to me when this expertise is sort of dropped in and all these people are dropped in and build something that might last centuries or might change, drastically, the lives of hundreds and thousands or millions of people. And then the people that built these things are gone.

MARTIN: Or it might make life worse.

EGGERS: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Like, did any of those people return and realize the thing that they built, the thing that they went into do actually didn't improve things for the local population, that it did have an adverse effect?

EGGERS: Yeah. And, you know, it's - in this case, Four and Nine are being used. They're tools. And the design is not apparent to them. But they are pawns in it, as are the local population. And - but none of this is visible when they go in. And I want it to be kind of unclear that whether or not Four knows. Has he done this many times, and he knows the risks? And he knows the possible implications. But, for him, it's a job. And it's not for him to guess at what the larger outcomes will be and the consequences of his work.

And I think that - you know, that's the - has to be the position of the vast majority of contractors and the vast majority of these situations - is that they can't guess at, and they can't overthink or even think too much about what will come of their work because, for them, maybe it would just be a rabbit hole that they'd never emerge from. And ultimately, they have to, you know, fix a pipeline or build one and then go back home. And how that turns out is not their concern.

MARTIN: Dave Eggers - his new book called "The Parade: A Novel" is out tomorrow. Thanks so much for your time.

EGGERS: Thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLEEN'S "GEOMETRIA DEL UNIVERSO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.