Saturday, 30 April 2011

Imperium by Ryszard Kapuściński

I think I have read most of Ryszard Kapuściński's books. He is Polish and, as far as I know, all of his work in English has been translated from his original tongue. Some styles of writing get lost in the translation process but his is quite memorable and consistently so across his works. It is vivid, personal and practical. He does not go in for florid metaphors. He doesn't need to, as his subject matter is so compelling.

This work is one of his best. It contains accounts of his travels in the the USSR between 1989 and 1991, as the empire ('Imperium") that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics started to collapse and fragment. This process continues today and he rightly predicted that the post-Soviet transition would take many years. It is that fact, perhaps above all others, that makes this book fresh and still relevant, as we watch today's Russia continuing to struggle with the legacies of the Soviet era.

For Kapuściński, these terrible legacies are fourfold: the remnants of the old regime, like the nomenklatura, the police and the army; the persistence of fear, since between 1918 and 1953, between 50 and 100 million Soviet citizens were murdered; poverty; and ecological horrors like the Aral Sea. It is worth mentioning that his report of what has happened to the Aral Sea is spare and unbelievably depressing.

He has fascinating and wise things to say about historical change, that apply almost everywhere in today's world. He notes that the former USSR went very rapidly from a position where information was rare and unreliable and fundamentally subversive to a totalitarian system, to a position, like many other countries, where it is so varied and abundant to bring whole new social problems. He also notes, more insightfully perhaps, that the pace of political change now outstrips the pace of change in ordinary life. Governments and institutions come and go in the space of years or months; meanwhile, people live pretty much as before, with the same dripping tap or long bus ride to work.

And he sees 3 black clouds over the 21st century: nationalism, racism and religious fundamentalism. These threats, all dependent for their existence on some ill feeling against some other, loom not only over the former USSR, of course. 

Some of what he writes about makes you catch your breath. The Great Famine in the Ukraine, when Stalin deliberately starved millions of people to death, is one of those things we sort of think we know about but which bears repeated consideration and scrutiny. The sheer awfulness of daily life the USSR is quite horrifying in its banality and ubiquity. As he points out, even the material privilege available to those who for hierarchical or other reasons could obtain it under the system was piffling to western eyes. Outrage because an official has a few extra supplies found in his car. Hardly grand corruption and personal kleptocracy, on the scale we see today in Russia.

And his visit to Siberia, where so many death camps were run by successive Soviet regimes, is unforgettable.

This is an excellent book, enhanced by a short but limpidly written afterword by Margaret Atwood. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Hurufites

"The disciples of this martyr, the Hurufites - mystics of the numeral, cabalists, and diviners - believed that the origins of the universe could be comprehended in terms of the figures 28 and 32. Using these numerals one can explain the mystery of each thing. It was the Hurufites' belief that God expressed himself through beauty: the more beautiful something was, the more God manifested himself in it. Beauty was their criterion for valuating the phenomenal world.

They searched for God in the human face. Although Muslims, they saw God in the faces of beautiful women."

From 'Imperium' by Ryszard Kapuściński

Friday, 22 April 2011

Last Train from Liguria, by Christine Dwyer Hickey

A nice, if slightly episodic novel. Good pace and an enjoyable story. Some things grate a little - the sometimes clumsy tricks to give the translation of Italian dialogue without actually doing it in brackets or something; the superficial evocation of period, using glimpses of newspapers and so on; and some cliched involvement of mysterious priests and nuns.

But these are the quibbles of a cynic. It is a good story, well written, with some nice insights into the nature of being Irish in the 20th century and the sense, that I suspect befalls many among later generations, that the drama and passion of the war years will never be repeated.

It also reminded me what an amazingly rich source of story telling WWII is, and has been. The racial nature of the horrors, the primary colours of the moral choices - so many things around which a story with psychological moment can be created.

American readers may justifiably feel a little aggrieved; the American characters are defined by their Americanism and they are two dimensional.

But this is a good read.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Kaiser's Holocaust, by David Olosuga and Casper W Erichsen

A really well written and well paced book. It deals with the genocides perpetrated by German colonial authorities in South West Africa (today's Namibia). It explains how Nazi racial exterminations were the legacy of the ideas and policies then put into practice.

It also provides a crisp summary of the thinking that lay behind Nazi theories and policies on race. Ideas like the 'untermenschen' and 'racial purity'. Fascinatingly, German plans in 1918 for a huge colony extending from the east coast of Africa to the west, to provide 'liebensraum' for the German people, were resurrected by the Nazis. But the foundation of the whole thing on the idea that some races are naturally superior to others, and that extermination of the latter is a dirty but necessary job, endured with the support of eugenics theorists.

Interesting too to see that Theodore Roosevelt was such a racist.

And when one reads today of the tensions between indigenous peoples in Central America and those seeking to exploit oil and other commodities, you have to fear that the imposition of the industrialised economic perspective will always harm those outside it.

So, I recommend this book highly. It joins up events across time in a way that is genuinely enlightening, at least for me.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

False Dawn, by John Gray

I just read this book, quickly, over just a few days. Well, quickly for me. I do read of people who get through astonishing quantities of books but there is more to life than reading.

It was written in 1998 and that remains a drawback for the reader in 2011. You have to admire the writer's prescience - he predicted the global economic crisis, based on his analysis of worldwide political and ideological trends. But some of the book has become dated.

His basic premise is that the Washington consensus - the idea that US style free market capitalism is the natural order of things and that all peoples of the world, given the chance and all other things being equal, would choose it - is completely wrong. He also argues that free market capitalism erodes society in many unrecognised ways and that the market does not inexorably lead to prosperity and a society's success.

It is a polemic - he is putting across a point of view - but it is thought provoking and powerful. From the vantage point of 2011, it is not easy to see how he is wrong. The feeling that the world is largely adrift on a sea of ethnic, religious and materials-based difference is hard to resist.

His prescription for dealing with it is to accept difference and not seek overarching philosophies that apply to all societies. And he is right that the Washington consensus is similar to Marxism, in its core belief that 'one size fits all'.

A good book - worth a few days' reading.

How do you choose a book?

How do you choose which books to read? I have two main means of doing so: recommendations from people I know and reviews in the newspapers and magazines I read. Since these latter are chiefly the Financial Times and the Economist (for work reasons), I tend to end up reading a fair number of heavy factual books.

I try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. For fiction, I am disinclined to waste time reading books that have not earned the respect and affection of those millions of readers who have gone before me. If you can read a book by an undisputed genius like Dickens or Hemingway, why take the risk of trying a writer lacking in similarly large quantities of unsolicited testimonials, in the form of cross references and adaptations?

I do read new and experimental writers. But if something is not very good, I will give up. I used to believe this was vaguely immoral, that there was something self-improving about reaching the end even of a book I was not enjoying very much. But age brings wisdom and life is too short. Unless you know from years of positive comment that a book contains something to make it worth persisting with, if you don't like it - drop it.