I promised myself that I'd find a nice -- but still emblematic -- excerpt to post here, but his story about Madagascar ("The Jealous Ones") is by far the most horrible one yet. He describes it as a place where the have-nots are constantly (and violently) taking from the haves, but even the haves are desperately poor...so everybody is essentially just stealing from everybody else. The anecdotes are less horrific, traumatic, and violent than those in the other stories, but the constant menace and extortion in "The Jealous Ones" is exhausting. And Vollmann is very good at describing the endless, exhausting sameness that breeds thoughtless violence.
It doesn't help that his interpreter/companion for this trip -- "O." -- is not a sympathetic character like the ones in other stories...she's 100% a product of the environment: poor, desperate, and terminally jealous. Apparently, in Madagascar, people are honest when they steal things from other people: they say they do it because they're jealous. And everybody there is jealous of everybody else, especially when somebody has a zebu.
But regardless. Here's probably the nicest emblematic statement I've read so far in "The Jealous Ones." This isn't a condemnation, it's a statement of fact:
When I think of Madagascar, I remember eroded roads and hills (they say that astronauts can see the erosion from the moon), jungle stumps with the soil between them now desert; I remember the smell of woodsmoke; I remember people's long skinny brown legs, and above all I remember dirty feet. Almost everybody goes barefoot. Beautiful women in dainty dresses think nothing of walking unshod through open sewers (or for that matter adding to them; Madagascar is one of those countries where one can excrete almost where one pleases, and people do; every day I'd see O. squat down in the middle of the street, urine slowly hissing between her bare or sandaled feet, and afterward she'd smile and say: Ah, darling, a very sweet piss!)