Why is the 1982 Booker Prize-winning Australian author, Thomas Keneally, who wrote "Schindler's Ark", made into the film, "Schindler's List," writing about famines?

The reason is that he feels compassion for the oppressed, the "wretched of the earth," to use psychiatrist Frantz Fanon's phrase. Regrettably, man's greatest enemy is his own kind.

Keneally writes a simple prose describing the failure of our attempts at intervention to amend this defect. An understanding of these failures, an intention of this book, may engender better solutions to help famine victims.

"Three Famines" is especially timely. Case in point: Readers know that a major famine is unfolding in the Horn of Africa this minute. The BBC reports that "Millions in Somalia face dire food shortages in the worst regional drought for decades. The Islamist al-Shabab militia, which controls much of Somalia, has banned the UN's World Food Program from its areas."

To begin, Keneally asks the old question: "What causes famine?" The answers are almost always the same: pestilence and drought are the natural reasons. Man-made indifference, poor administration or outright violence are often more toxic factors.

The author follows up with analyses of the famines in question that show "mindsets of governments, racial preconceptions and administrative incompetence were more lethal than the initiating blights, the loss of potatoes or rice or livestock or of the grain named teff."

He begins with the oldest famine treated in his new book, that which began in Ireland in 1845, "the great hunger." The author has dealt with this topic before, as part of the history of Irish nationalism. This time he covers the famine "stripped of its former . rhetoric." I am not sure that Keneally is successful in stripping the nationalism from the tale. It may not be possible.

So to the history: The English politician, Charles Edward Trevelyan (18071886), assistant secretary to HM Treasury from 18401859, is the usual villain in the Irish potato famine. Trevelyan thought the Irish innately lazy, lustful and not held to account by incompetent Irish landlords.

Early in the crisis, the British prime minister was Sir Robert Peel. He bears blame for thinking that reports of starvation in Ireland were always tending to "exaggeration and inaccuracy." To some degree, this was true.

Lord John Russell, who served as prime minister after Peel, has not received his full blame, according to Keneally, for pushing the disastrous principles that Trevelyan exercised in famine relief -- if that is what it can be called at this distance.

As a matter of record, the potato blight was caused by the infestation of the fungus phytophthora infestans, still with us but now treated by copper sulfate.

The second hunger in the book deals with what struck Bengal in 1943-44. Bengal is situated in the northern region of the Indian subcontinent at the apex of the Bay of Bengal.

Again, natural causes were involved, but the impact of World War II "on north-east India and by British-Indian government policies" was a major factor in putting help to the Bengalis on the back burner.

"The Japanese threat of entering British-ruled India across the border from Burma made it easier for those in authority to worsen the Bengali crisis."

The third great hunger was that which enveloped the Ethiopians. It came in two cycles. The first took place in the early 1970s and again in the early and mid-1980s, according to Keneally.

Great hungers have unmistakable trademarks. Keneally says: "In all famines there is a continuity of the features of the famished. Their hollowed and stark-eyed faces bring forth in witnesses the same sort of horrified descriptions -- one could be used to speak of any of the others."

Another trademark of starvation is politics. The starvations are "siblings"' who share the same DNA, Keneally writes, subject to the same scourge of "human fallibility, and of dogmatic and determined misinterpretation by governments and officials of both the victims and the events that have overtaken them."

Keneally writes "Three Famines: Starvation and Politics" to remind us that we have a fraternal obligation to care -- to make some form of helpful outreach -- for those who live precarious lives.

Michael D. Langan is a former official in the U.S. Treasury and Labor Departments.


Three Famines: Starvation And Politics

By Thomas Keneally

Public Affairs

336 pages, $27.99