Same Old Story

I was quite surprised by Denis Dutton's recent review of Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (Book World, May 8). Having heard again and again the time-worn cliche that only seven plot-lines are possible, I was awaiting some deep analysis and possible disproof of this oft-quoted assertion, but my expectations were dashed by Dutton's wholly naive understanding of narrative meaning (to give him the benefit of the doubt).

Dutton takes Booker's analysis of Jurassic Park, for one, as an example of where Booker goes wrong. Booker characterizes the tale as one of ego. Dutton counters that the dinosaurs -- the "Monsters" of this tale -- are no threat to ego, but rather savage beasts pursuing their own natural lusts. This misses the incredibly blunt moral of the story, which is to admonish humans for the hubris -- ego, if you like -- in thinking that we have become so adept at controlling nature that we can build a terrarium containing anything that has ever lived, bring it to life and keep it tame. Indeed, this would seem to fit another of Booker's categories, "Tragedy," which concerns the arrogance of overreaching and the terrible consequences that follow.

Dutton then criticizes Booker's opinion on the "Rule of Three," dismissing it as tantamount to numerology or the vague casting of astrological signs. Had he ever taken a writing course, or indeed picked up a book on writing, he would see that not only do specialists mention this tendency in literature, they exhort writers to use it, as a natural rhythm readers have come to expect. How he can consider this to be only an imaginary pattern, I cannot understand.

I do think that Dutton correctly identifies Booker's tendency to laud stories that clearly follow an "archetype" and disparage those that stray from these "pure tales," but to disparage the concept of archetypes even as he espouses "fundamental, hard-wired human interests" is bewildering.

I would hope that a review purporting to analyze a work on the deep structure of human narrative would itself be the product of a little deep thinking.


Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Truth in Labeling

Book World erred by placing the review of Andrew Bacevich's The New American Militarism in the "U.S. History" category (Book World, May 8). Bacevich is an artful polemicist whose forte is white-hot criticism of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. A sober-minded historical analysis of that policy would not dismiss it as "buccaneering" or accuse Jimmy Carter of starting a world war against the Middle East. The review of Bacevich's latest production ought to have been placed under the rubric, "Public Policy/Current Affairs" or "International Relations."


Falls Church, Va.

The Incredible Shrinking Peso

I would like to point out two factual errors in Moises Naim's review of And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out), by Paul Blustein (Book World, May 8) . First, Naim claims that Argentina was a serial violator of the "low fiscal deficits" rule because President Carlos Menem was unable to reign in fiscal spending. In reality, Argentina's primary spending as a percent of GDP throughout the 1990s actually declined slightly. Furthermore, Argentina had a primary fiscal surplus most of the 1990s. The only component of public spending that spiraled out of control was debt service, due to increasingly high interest rates Argentina was forced to pay as it borrowed to pay off its past debt.

Second, Naim fails to understand the central role the International Monetary Fund played in the Argentine crisis. First, the IMF promoted the privatization of social security, which strongly contributed to Argentina's debt spiral as social security revenues disappeared but expenditures did not. Second, the IMF lent billions of dollars, even in late 2001 when it was clear that the system was unviable. In exchange, Argentina implemented a wide range of IMF-promoted policies. (The notion that Argentina strong-armed the IMF into lending is ludicrous and empirically untenable.) Finally, when the recession hit in late 1998, IMF-prescribed fiscal spending cuts only deepened the crisis, substantially contributing to Argentina's downward spiral with the known results.

It is helpful to look at the data and read the IMF agreements, as they dispel many popular myths.


Centro Interdisciplinario para

el Estudio de Politicas Publicas

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Moises Naim replies:

Paul Blustein's book offers a well documented refutation of the points made by Alan Cibils. The first is that despite official statistics like those cited by Cibils, Argentina's public finances worsened during the 1990s. This was largely the result of the growth of the federal government's off-budget -- and out of sight -- expenditures. We now know that these off-budget expenditures account for 9 percentage points of the 10 percentage point increase in the public debt ratio from 31 percent of GDP in 1992 to 41 percent in 1998. Blustein shows that Argentina had a secret fiscal life that neither the government nor Wall Street analysts had much incentive to expose. The book also shows that the simplistic scapegoating of the IMF is at best a distraction from the need to understand the role that others played in pushing Argentina to a financial precipice. That the IMF made many mistakes in Argentina, and elsewhere, is now part of the common wisdom. That a poor country like Argentina could manipulate and influence the behavior of such a powerful financial institution and that Argentina's policies ran counter to the advice of the IMF are far more interesting, and valid, conclusions.

El Capitan Kid

I read with interest Michael Dirda's review of Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste (Book World, May 8). Judging from the Spanish edition (Madrid, 1999), which I have in hand, he is absolutely correct in surmising that it was "conceived as a young adult novel." The flap copy for the Spanish edition states that with Capitan Alatriste the author "repays an old debt from [his] youth, rendering homage to the novels of adventure and swordsmen that accompanied his beginnings as a reader." In fact, Perez-Reverte's young daughter -- then 12 or 13 years old -- is credited as co-author on the basis of her help with the historical research and in supplying the point of view of the young page, Inigo. In Spain, the series is published in a completely different format from Perez-Reverte's adult novels, in large type and with black-and-white illustrations reminiscent of boys' adventure novels from an earlier era.


Washington, D.C.

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Christopher Booker