Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul is a deceptively ambitious project. And this applies as much to the reading of this great work as to its writing. The novel addresses some great themes on a multiplicity of levels and in every case succeeds in both illustrating issues and provoking thought via a deceptively simple story of kidnap and espionage. 

 The Honorary Consul is set in Argentina. We are in the north, far from the sophistication of cities, on the banks of the Paraná River, cheek by jowl with Paraguay. And over that border there is the iron-fisted rule of the General, an oppression that has created a social orderliness based on fear and persecution. About twenty years ago, a victim of that oppression, an Englishman resident in Paraguay, put his wife and young son onto a ferry to Argentina. He stayed behind to rejoin the struggle and was not heard of again.

The wife took up residence in Buenos Aires and devoted herself to gossip and sweet eating. The son, Eduardo Plarr, went to medical school, qualified and, at the start of the novel, is practising his profession in that small, provincial, northern town. His thoughts regularly cross the river to contemplate his father’s possible fate.

It is by virtue of his father’s nationality that Eduardo calls himself English. Eduardo is one of just three English residents in the town. Humphries used to be a teacher, while the third, Charles Fortnum, has the title of Honorary Consul. His role is minimal, of course, and his status is less than that. But he ekes a few bob out of the role by the resale of the new car he has a right to import every two years.

Charles is a heavy drinker, preferring whisky of all types, but willing to drink almost anything in the right measure. He and the other two English residents frequent the same bars, restaurants and brothels, and so they also share the same sources of pleasure. Eduardo is surprised to learn that Charles, a sixty-year-old slob, has married one of the girls – a twenty-year-old stripling – from their favoured haunt. He wonders how it will all work long before he becomes her doctor and thereby provides the most thorough examination that medical science knows. When she falls pregnant, she at least is sure whose child it is.

And then one day visitors from Paraguay bring news of Eduardo’s father. They have a plan. There is to be a visit by the American ambassador. Charles will actually have to do something. There is to be a visit to a local site. The group of opportunistic Paraguayans plan a kidnap. They will hold the ambassador until named detainees in Paraguay, Eduardo’s father amongst them, are released. They carry out their threat, but bungle it. As Charles Fortnum’s car passed by, they mistook his CC plate for CD and thereby kidnapped the wrong man.

Instead of an American ambassador, they have a merely an honorary consul, and one without much honour. El Tigre, their remote, anonymous commander is clearly not pleased. We never get to know much about El Tigre, but then perhaps we know more than we think. As ever in Graham Greene, the characters are presented with moral dilemmas. In The Honorary Consul these span the domestic, the religious, the familial and the political.

A short review can do no justice to either the complexity of the ideas or the economy and subtlety of the writer’s treatment of them. Tragedies ensue and there is even a happy ending of sorts. A former priest – there’s no such thing as a former priest! – grapples with the contradictions of liberation theology on the one hand and the obedience demanded of servile duty on the other. Graham Greene does not resolve all the dilemmas he raises. Good writing, after all, is not about answering questions. But it does necessarily involve asking the right ones.

The Honorary Consul is the work of a writer of genius at the height of his powers. It is also the work of a man with a keen sense of politics and morality. And it is also surely one of the few books that all people should list as a must read.

Friday, December 10, 2010

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan

Having read much of Ian McEwan’s later work in the last few years, I was intrigued to chance upon a copy of First Love, Last Rites, a set of his short stories published in 1975. I read The Cement Garden and The Comfort Of Strangers just after their publication, but I have not picked up any early McEwan since then. First Love, Last Rites proved to be an eye-opening read, not least because hindsight offers real clues as to how Ian McEwan has developed as a writer.

The stories in this set vary from Disguises which, at around 20,000 words, might even be a novella, to Cocker At The Theatre which is definitely a short story. What characterises all of these tales, however, is that they focus on characters whose behaviour or personal culture might be seen as towards the minority end of taste. I use the word minority to indicate that only a few people would admit to such proclivities, not that they might comprise only a small element of generality. It was this concentration on arguably the freakish that allowed the nickname Ian Macabre to stick.

In First Love, Last Rites, for instance, we have a touch of incest, sexual intercourse on stage, not a little child abuse seasoned with transvestism, an episode of boiling in oil, childhood games that grow prematurely adult, rats scratching at the skirts and more. I am reminded of the photographs of Diane Arbus from roughly the same period. It seemed that wherever she pointed her camera, no matter how potentially mundane the shot might appear, there would be evidence of sadomasochism, bestiality, paedophilia, even meat-eating. It was this mix of what was understood as marginal mixed with the manifestly prosaic that caught the attention in the photographs and rendered them so disturbing. Viewing them reminded oneself of diverse aspects of humanity that – at least potentially – we all share and yet publicly try to deny. For the British, that might include all sex that cannot be advertised or sold. It certainly includes all the aspects of human behaviour listed above. I am not accusing all adults of paedophilia. I am suggesting that all of us have both privately and publicly appreciated the neat, taut beauty of a child’s body. 

The question, and it remains an interesting one, is where is the line between ‘normal’ appreciation of beauty and socially unacceptable ‘perversity’. I will never forget a trip around London’s National Gallery with a relative younger than myself, someone with little previous exposure to “art”. Her comment was that the paintings were pornographic, merely because they portrayed nudes. All Ian McEwan’s characters straddle this question’s necessary confusion. Maybe their acts are merely imagined, leaving the individuals grappling with aspects of themselves they cannot understand, admit or control. Maybe they do what they say but, as a result of some inner drive that others do not share, cannot comprehend their own marginality. Whatever the case, these peoples’ psyches must continually grapple with a conflict between a truth of what they are versus an image of what they believe themselves to be. There’s a gap of communication wide enough to allow most experience to fall through.

And it is these gaps that Ian McEwan exploits. He presents people in situations that for them might seem completely mundane. For the rest of us, these are highly individual worlds that publicly we do not expect to see. But, like the images of Diane Arbus, we find we can enter into them because those aspects of humanity are within us as well, though often we don’t like to admit it. Where Ian McEwan’s later work triumphs can now be seen more clearly. Whereas in the earlier work there was a need for a fundamental shift by the reader to admit a possible likeness with his characters, in his later work he presents the individual foibles of his characters in much more rounded, complex forms, forms that all of us can easily associate with. Then the contradictions emerge. Then the conflicts surface and then the gaps in communication widen. The approach is the same, but the effect is so much greater. First Love, Last Rites remains a brilliant read in its own right, but I reckon that for many readers of Ian McEwan a re-visit would shed much new light on his later work.

The Telling by Miranda Seymour

The Telling by Miranda Seymour is the life story, life confessions perhaps, of Nancy Parker. She is living out her retirement in a satisfactory way, given that she has been one of life’s downtrodden. 

She has been victimised, abused, betrayed and even framed, a recipient of repeated short straws through no fault of her own. And Nancy Porter also bears witness to the fact that if enough of it is thrown, then some of it starts to stick.

Now she is old and dearly wants to relive it all by writing it down on paper. She does not attempt a linear recollection, though. Instead she allows time to switch across decades to recall salient events in their context. Throughout we are aware of a crisis that drew the heart from the middle of Nancy’s life. As a result, she was incarcerated for fifteen years.

It is the circumstances that led to this that form the central plank of The Telling’s plot. We begin at the beginning, however, with a childhood that knew abuse, denial and bigotry. Despite this, Nancy grew up. Then, as a young woman, she was packed off to relatives in New York.

They immediately try to remake her in their own image, but her interests are aroused by an acrobatic character she meets in the street. He inhabits a part of the city unknown to her well-heeled hosts. He has the unlucky first name of Chance, and Nancy takes it to become Mrs Brewster. Chance is on the edge of the city’s cultural life. The couple hobnob with writers and other who claim insights into the human condition. Nancy meanwhile becomes a mother and makes a home. She is a giving sort. But the daughter, Eleanor, is a source of concern.

Events conspire further to spell danger for the household. There are crises. Via a mutual friend the Brewsters meet Charles and Isobel. They live abroad, but a change of circumstance brings them to the Brewsters’ cottage in New England as lodgers. The rambling house proves too small for everyone and, according to the record, Nancy suffers a breakdown of sorts, a catastrophe that starts her fifteen year incarceration in institutions. There is a twist, by the way. But, as a result, her own daughter never again entrusts her with the care of her own children.

The Telling is eventually a satisfying read. But I repeatedly felt themes surfacing and then sinking back to the depths, lost, ignored and out of mind. For me it was a novel that lacked coherence. Nancy’s childhood experiences, for instance, were vividly portrayed. One felt there would be consequences, but they were apparently forgotten. By the end I was mildly disappointed by the claim that much of the material was based on the lives of named people. I felt this added nothing to the book or its ideas. These are fairly small criticisms, however, because The Telling remains a worthwhile read.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Rules Of Life by Fay Weldon

The Rules Of Life by Fay Weldon aspires to the feeling of a full-length novel in the guise of a small novella. In less than 30,000 words, we are presented with a science fiction scenario, a society- and even culture-wide ideological and religious shift, a transformation of our approach to death, and then, if that were not enough to make a cake, a life history and the reactions of others to it iced on top. It is a remarkable feat to bring all that off, create a complete and highly satisfying experience for the reader and to do it in an easy, but sophisticated style that is never didactic. 

 The Rules Of Life begins in a new era, that of the GNFR, the Great New Fictional Religion. Grades of priests proclaim different levels of access to truth. Not a lot new there, then! It’s an age of science, apparently, despite the general absence of anything that seems even vaguely scientific. GSWITS is a character who figures prominently in the book, but we never meet her. She, or perhaps he, is the Great Screen Writer In The Sky, and was probably a comedian in an earlier life, though few laughs are raised. 

Thus the book opens, and we expect we are to be transported into yet another clichéd distopia, full of romantic references to dysfunctional but homely aspects of the present. How easy is it for a writer to play on people’s shallow fears? But The Rules Of Life does something more subtle than this. Fay Weldon uses the scenario merely as a means to examine further – and in a different way – those apparently permanent aspects of life that have been the raw material for writers since writing began, and for people in general even before that. Ghosts have a new status in this rather cowardly new world. Lives can be replayed like cassette tapes. They can be examined, but not quite reconstructed or relived.

Our narrator, a recorder priest in the new order, has a disc to examine. It contains, he finds, the life of one Gabriela Sumpter. As he replays the dead woman’s life, he finds himself ever more engaged in her experience. A relationship develops between them as Gabriela relates her life story. 

 The point of The Rules Of Life may be that no matter how much human society changes its assumptions, its organisation or even its adopted values, there are aspects of life that remain immutable, perhaps inevitable. But despite inevitability, each individual experiences these givens of human existence in what – at least at the personal level – feels like a wholly unique way. No matter how many times we replay it, it only ever happens once. That maybe is the only rule of life.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness by Lawrence Durrell

Some decades ago I read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and all his travel books. The term addict could easily have been an under-statement of my obsession with the author’s work. I also discovered Tunc and Nunquam and drooled over Dark Labyrinth, Sappho, the Collected Poens and the rest. Soon afterwards, following a break of a couple years from Durrell’s work, I bought a copy of Monsieur and expectantly embarked upon what I anticipated would be a return to the sublime, sometimes intellectual complexities of the sophisticated, often Bohemian travellers that populate his work. I reached page sixty-five, which promptly fell out when I flipped it over in a frustration that had been growing from page one. 

The people in the Avignon books seemed different. They were of the same ilk as those I had previously revered, but somehow these people were fundamentally less engaging than the Alexandria residents with their guarded complexities. In Monsieur, they seemed stuffy, self-obsessed, bound up in the over-complicated minutiae of what I now saw as an isolation, not a liberation, of travel. 

Thirty years on, I gave just finished Monsieur, its time on my bookshelves in the intervening years being merely decorative. It retained a mild disappointment, but this time I was completely engaged.

 Piers has died. His life-long friend, Bruce, is on his way to the rambling but grand old house in the south of France to see to his friend’s affairs. Bruce recalls their friendship, the tripartite relationship they shared with Piers’s sister, the delectable but unstable Sabine. Sutcliffe, the writer, was also a long-term mutual acquaintance. His frustration with his own creativity as never diminished. His notes testify to how hard he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to sustain his task. And there are others, such as the delicate Pia and a man called Toby, who seems to be exactly what men called Toby ought to be. 

But the central dimension of the book is not the interpersonal relationships between the characters, which form a kind of currency via which the main themes are traded. It is when the Egyptian Gnostic Akkad enters the story that things start to hang together. They went to meet him at Macabru in the desert, where he provided an hallucinogenic stimulus and invited them to a vision, which some of them shared. 

It changed Piers’s life, while others could not get past their scepticism. But in fact the experience changed all of their lives in that it revealed aspects of themselves that each, independently and perhaps collectively, would rather have not admitted until that day. Some of them continued to deny. And laced over the top of all this is a filigree of plot arising from the fact that Piers’s full name was Piers de Nogaret. He was no less than the last earthly survivor of a line that led back to the Grand Master that saw an end to the Knights Templar. The ancestor, the historical figure that became the head of one of the most powerful orders of medieval Christian warriors, was born of parents who were themselves burned as Cathar heretics, so perhaps there was the motive. Perhaps… 

 To cap it all, there’s also sexual confusion. There are homosexual tendencies that seem to be linked to religious cravings. There’s the usual Henry Miller-esque hetero variety that so often suffuses through Durrell’s characters. And here there is more than a suggestion of incest in the dusty rooms of that Avignon chateau. Confused? So was I. And don’t expect much resolution. Perhaps now that I a tad older than when I first read Lawrence Durrell, I am more willing to accept this.

Monsieur, the first of a set of five books, becomes thus a meditation on motive, religiosity, belief and Lord knows what, juxtaposed by a sense of place and history, and all layered with a near scatology of bodily functions. And when it comes to the crunch, why should a corpse need a head anyway? This time I got past page sixty-five, which fell out again, by the way. Monsieur is not the kind of novel that contemporary, plot-hungry readers might crave. It is a page-turner, but you have to go back as often as forward. That’s life, I suppose.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How Long Is A Piece Of String by Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham

If you have a couple of hours to spare and are intrigued by apparently simple problems that turn out to be more complex than they seem, then Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham’s book How Long Is A Piece Of String? would be an engaging way to fill the time. This is a carefully constructed book, with each of its sixteen chapters occupying about ten pages. There is just enough space to introduce an idea, pose a couple of questions and then deliver suitable solutions. The style is a little polemical, since there is not much space for the reader to investigate. But overall the material is well thought out and offers one or two surprising ideas. Each chapter poses a question. How Long Is a Piece Of String, Am I Being Taken For A Ride, What Makes A Hit Single, Is It A Fake are just a few examples. In Am I Being Taken For A Ride the authors explain the logic of the taxi fare. It’s ironic that as the chapters go by they themselves have something of the air of a driver eyeing the customer in the back with an associated, “And another thing…” The authors consider chance in game shows alongside how soon a drunk will fall into the ditch. Their analysis of how predictable sporting contests might be might itself also explain why I gave up watching tennis decades ago. They examine fractals and make a tree and then conclude that numbers quite often start with one. You may find this last revelation surprising. I did. All right, it’s populist stuff, but there is enough mathematics to keep the specialist interested for a couple of hours. The book is strangely but usefully illustrated and some of its explanations are extremely well presented. It’s undoubtedly a worthwhile read. Oh, and How Long Is A Piece OF String? Well, as Richard Feynman famously answered, it depends on the length of your ruler.

Monday, November 8, 2010

East West by Salman Rushdie

East West is a short collection of short stories by Salman Rushdie. But there is nothing small or even limited about the themes they cover, nor anything bland about the palette Rushdie uses to colour his ideas. They were published in the mid-1990s, when the writer was deep into the confines of the fatwa that threatened his life. It is thus refreshing to reflect on the wide and poignant use of humour trough the collection. The stories are enigmatically arranged in three groups entitled East, West and East-West. They thus form a kind of triptych.

In East we visit territory well known to readers of Rushdie. He is in the sub-continent, addressing notions of tradition and culture, notions that are interpreted and reinterpreted by change, personal ambition and by familial and religious associations. 

 In West, Salman Rushdie presents Yorick’s view of Hamlet and an encounter between Catholic Isabella and her hired man, Christopher Columbus. One is fiction superimposed on fact, while the other approaches the reader from the opposite direction. Both stories turn in on themselves, reverse roles and blur the distinctions between fact and fiction. In East-West we find people in new contexts, away from home, inhabiting places unfamiliar to them. We meet people who impose private, personal structures on a wider experience that others share. 

Misunderstandings create their own new language, and fiction expresses and interprets a shared reality. But what is continually astounding about these stories is the literary style that Salman Rushdie brings to almost every sentence. The pictures he draws are surreal, even hyper-real and yet utterly mundane, even prosaic at the same time. A change encounter with a particular object can evoke memory, visual allusion, lyrics from pop culture and tastes of what grandma used to cook. Then, in the next sentence, he can sustain the effect by unloading another bus-load of metaphors. The writing is arresting, but also beautifully fluid and entertainingly readable. For anyone who has tried Salman Rushdie’s novels and recoiled at the challenge of their density, I would recommend these stories as a taster in miniature of what the bigger experience can sustain. Once you are used to the style, it flows easily.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On the face of things the two families featured in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty are fairly functional. The Belsey family lives in New England, near Boston to be more precise. Howard is English and white. Kiki, the wife, is from Florida and is black. There are three intensely sophisticated progeny, Jerome, Levi and Zora. The Kipps family, meanwhile, lives in Old England in a less than fashionable area of north London. Monty and Carlene are black British with Caribbean roots. Their children are the delectable Victoria and an older, cool, already achieving son, who figures little in the tale. Both husbands are academics. Howard is a specialist on art history and is an arch-liberal. His rival, Monty, is almost rabidly neo-conservative. They have feuded for some time, academically speaking, despite their families being on good enough terms to want to stay with one another.

When the story opens, Jerome Belsey is in London and has fallen for the obvious charms of Victoria Kipps and is suggesting engagement. Now wouldn’t that complicate things! As the book progresses we learn that these apparent domestic heavens are less perfect than they appear. The two fathers are not as dedicated to the promotion of domestic harmony as they at first seem. Romances bud and blossom amongst and between the younger members of the plot. 

There are inter-generational liaisons of various kinds. There is also a heightened professional rivalry between Howard and Monty. There ensues an ideological battle that intensifies when Monty joins Howard’s US college on an invitation. Monty tries to stir things up and, as ever, liberals are his prime target. Howard effectively assists by rising to take the bait, trying, as liberals sometimes do, to equalise before he has gone behind. Zora, Howard’s daughter, wants to enrol in a poetry class. There are no places, however, because the tutor – a poet who has a special relationship with Howard – takes in talented candidates who are not actually on the college roll. 

A campaign is launched and Zora, her dad and Monty are in the thick of the argument. Things come to a head when a poor lad from the rough end of town is invited to join the class because of his unique gift for rap. An accommodation must be found. Victoria, Monty’s daughter also figures on campus and she manages to complicate most things simply by looking the way she does. Basically the lives of these families begin to unravel as tensions pull at the frayed ends of their lives. 

Zadie Smith writes with great poignancy and irony. She is particularly successful in characterising the generational gaps, and she does this without ever sounding clichéd or patronising. The sex that simmers throughout just beneath the surface occasionally bubbles through and, when it does, it generally makes quite a mess. In theory, all these people want to do the right thing by and for others, but when opportunities arise, they usually can’t resist the pull of blatant self-interest. They all profess the long view, but in reality they all live for the moment, and that is usually passing. On Beauty is a convincing and moving portrait of modern family life. Zadie Smith consistently resists the temptation to pitch the populist against the elitist. Her characters merely live, and the ups and downs they all suffer are eventually no more than their individual and collective experience.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Brother, My Executioner by F Sionil José

F Sionil José’s novel, My Brother, My Executioner, is set in a period of Philippine history whose international significance is worthy of wider knowledge. The author’s Rosales novels describe the life of a Filipino family over several generations. Rosales is a fictitious town, but its location is quite real, as is the history that unfolds around it. Rosales is in Ilocos, in northern Luzon, whose people are seen by many Filipinos as a race apart. The events that form the backdrop to My Brother, My Executioner are the Huk rebellion.

It’s the 1950s. Don Vicente is a Rosales landowner and he is ill, close to the end of his life. He reminisces, recalling the immense suffering of his wife who presented him with multiple miscarriages. But he did have a son, Luis, born of a poor woman is a small village called Sipnget. So, unlike others from that poor place, Luis received an education courtesy of the fees his rich father could pay. He became a writer and moved to Manila to pursue a self-contained,and ultimately selfish life.

Luis writes for a magazine owned by Dantes, a rich businessman with a reputation for ruthlessness. Esther, the boss’s daughter, fancies Luis, but her advances are not reciprocated, except intellectually. Personal tragedy threatens.

Luis is also worshipped by Trining, a teenage cousin who shares some of his roots. When Luis’s father notes their affinity and also identifies the convenience that their marriage would facilitate. Luis seems quite happy to do the right thing. Trining has her way with him and promises to bear him a dozen children. The first is soon conceived.

But it is when Luis makes a visit to his father’s house, a rare excursion beyond Manila’s city limits, that he also decides to look up his estranged mother. He visits Sipnget to find his home village levelled and burnt, its inhabitants ‘disappeared’, its crops destroyed. The Huk guerrillas have been there and the military, amply aided by local militias have cleansed the area. The militias, of course, are controlled by Luis’s father and they have driven his mother from her home.

Luis resolves to publicise the injustice. He researches the events, writes an article and publishes. But when vested interests question his facts, his motives and allegiances, he finds himself challenged on many fronts.

In another twist in the scenario we meet Vic, Luis’s half-brother. He was a freedom fighter during the Japanese occupation. While collaborators made money, he fought with the resistance that sought liberation from foreign rule. Now he is the commander of a Huk unit, a leader of a communist insurgency, if I might use a word that would be employed today to describe indigenous resistance. Vic operates near Rosales.

The Huk rebellion is an era of Philippine history that surely deserves wider analysis and discussion. It became a hotspot of the early Cold War. Events in Korea occupy the 1950s limelight, of course, but the Philippine rural guerrilla war was perhaps a precursor of what we now call Vietnam. The United States was involved, of course, and when the rebellion against the landowners was defeated under President Magsaysay’s leadership, he became an internationally-renowned champion of the North-American brand of freedom. In 1980, F Sionil José received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and creative Communication Arts.

Given this history, a history that is incidentally wonderfully described by Benedict Kerkvliet in his book The Huk rebellion, there ought to be more than ample scope for the novelist to create tension, conflict and surprise. Unfortunately, the denouement of My Brother, My Executioner is a tad predictable. The tragedy is eventually too personal, its obvious metaphor becoming a punch pulled. Little is made of the potential conflict between the inheriting Luis and Vic, his guerrilla-commander brother. The book remains an engaging and enjoyable read, but the drama of its setting seemed to promise much more.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Music Of The Primes by Marcus du Sautoy

The Music Of The Primes by Marcus du Sautoy is not a book for the faint-hearted. The author may be a populariser of mathematics, but certainly in this book there is plenty of substance that would maintain the interest of the specialist and also enough technicality to cause the general reader to pause. The book is a brilliant piece of work, however, so all must resist any temptation to skip. The Music Of The Primes is a glittering account, superbly paced, of an unfinished story.

From the very first page it demands to be read, so much so that like me you will probably finish it in two sittings at most. Marcus du Sautoy regularly refers to prime numbers as the atoms of our number system. I have some reservations with this metaphor, but I was willing to live with it. For the uninitiated, a prime number has just two factors, one and itself. It cannot be exactly divided by anything else. The list begins 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13 and continues ad infinitum. The sieve of Eratosthenes established that fact a couple of thousand years ago. But, despite many lifetimes of trying, we have never successfully been able to predict whether a particular number would be prime, or conversely, exactly where the next prime number might be. They seem to be distributed randomly throughout our number system, all odd except for that initial 2, the odd-one-out pair that spoils it for every other even. 

 The Music Of The Primes relates how mathematicians have closed in on the mystery of how these numbers occur without, as yet, managing to crack the complete code. Marcus du Sautoy describes some of the great contributions to the understanding of prime numbers. The names Fermat, Gauss and Euler figure regularly. But it is the great name of Riemann that emerges as the lynchpin of this story, his Conjecture being the unsolved problem that currently occupies many a brain, the one million dollars in prize money offered for its solution oiling the machinations. 

Riemann turned the search for prime numbers on its head when he used complex numbers to reposition the problem. Complex numbers, by the way, are at least in part imaginary and, though they don’t exist, no self-supporting bridge would stand up without them. His now famous Conjecture was that evidence of the existence of prime numbers would line up in a predictable way in a four-dimensional space created when one two-dimensional complex number was plotted against another, the latter being the solution to a particular power series called a zeta function equated to zero. His problem was that he couldn’t prove that things lined up in precisely the way he predicted. He had strong hunches that he was right, but, lacking proof, a conjecture is what it remained. And people have been trying to prove it for a century and a half. 

 Prime numbers are now big business, of course. Public-private key encryption now oils the wheels of internet commerce and the security it offers is based on the possession of quite huge, quite astronomically large prime numbers. Find a few new ones and you could make a very good living. If you want to taste the complexity of the task, then spend no more than five minutes finding the two tree-digit factors of 8051. Imagine then the work involved in identifying two 200 digit prime numbers that combine to a Rivest, Shamir and Adelman security key. Reading this superb book will provide further insight. It will also illustrate very well the value of pure research conducted by specialist academics. 

When the accountants complain that programmes have no apparent immediate application, it is worth remembering how advances in human knowledge made over two hundred years ago are only just finding wide application in fields completely unenvisaged by their inventors. Without the knowledge they developed in their apparent vacuum, of course, the modern-day application may never have been conceived. Just imagine where the human race might be two centuries from now if Kurt Gödel’s ideas have become the basis for all mathematics. Read this book and then imagine.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky

It is almost twenty years since Noam Chomsky published Deterring Democracy. Its contemporary context is an important starting point in the understanding of its position since most of the material seeks to analyse and contextualise United States foreign policy in the post-War years to the early nineties. In 1991 the United States under George Bush was embroiled in the First Gulf War. I must stress the word “first”, since this gives a clue to the book’s eventual prescience.

Also in 1991, a dim and distant past when the new millennium was not yet a talking point, a bi-polar world, whose permanence and assumed conflict provided the framework for all political analysis, was already being transformed. The Soviet Union had already ceased to be, but the years of Yeltsin’s IMF poverty lay ahead, as did those of Putin’s new pragmatic if demagogic prosperity.

Regimes of all political stances came and went in Central and South America. But all of them were classified as good or evil by the Manichean filter of the age. Occasionally, a convenience of political pragmatism offered re-branding, as in the case of Jamaica, where Michael Manley, a leader once undermined as a leftist was reinstated with eternal backing after Edward Seaga’s neo-liberal experiment predictably burnt out. Chomsky’s record of Manley’s second era being that of his violin phase is extremely succinct. He was put up by the left, but played by the right.

Descriptions of prevailing issues in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala figure large, of course. But Chomsky also visits the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Europe to illustrate his central point. And it is a point that he makes and re-makes, a point that he still makes today. His analysis, simply put, is that an alliance of elite interests involving legislators, the powerful and those who own and control big business drives the US foreign policy agenda. The elite’s sole aim is to preserve and further its own power, influence and prosperity. The fact that it does not always speak with a consistent voice is merely evidence that within the group there remains competition. Indeed, the group is neither particularly stable nor permanent. It is rather a loose alliance of interest, perhaps heavily reliant on birthright, but not determined by it. Notions of freedom, democracy, individual or collective rights and even development are peddled, attached like advertisers’ catchlines to the same product every time it is recommended. To maintain its ascendancy, this ideology that fosters profit via power needs an enemy to provide a shield behind which it can hide its pursuit of self-advancement. The Soviet Union sufficed for most of the second half of the last century, but since then others have had to be identified to fulfil this essential role. It will not require much imagination to identify the current dark threats.

The population at large, meanwhile, has to be sold these ideas. When threat of nuclear war between super-powers loomed large, it was not difficult to fix the framework. How much easier is it now, when the current all-powerful, all-pervading enemy might just be within and among us? This low-intensity, back-burner threat continues to mask the activity that fuels an ever-increasing concentration of power and wealth. The people of the democratic, individualistic West are perfectly willing to stand by as recession bites, banks declare deposits worthless, pension funds dwindle, retirements recede and wages stagnate while those who perhaps cause these strictures luxuriate in ever-increasing, often self-granted rewards.

And, in a truly prescient passage, Chomsky describes this submissive, passive mentality perfectly. “For submissiveness to become a reliable trait,” he writes, “it must be entrenched in every realm. The public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products. Eduardo Galeano writes that ‘the majority must resign itself to the consumption of fantasy. Illusions of wealth are sold to the poor, illusions of freedom to the oppressed, dreams of victory to the defeated and power to the weak.’ Nothing less will do.” In this context, is it any surprise that the average contemporary consumer knows more of celebrity gossip than political option?

Deterring Democracy is packed – perhaps over-packed – with detailed evidence. Chomsky makes his point repeatedly and forcefully. I was once privileged to co-host the author as chair of a London conference. At first hand I can vouch for the sincerity and passion that underpins these views. I can also vouch for the solidity of the evidence upon which they are based.

Noam Chomsky is not anti-American. It is the exploiters of self-seeking power and self-deferential influence who deserve that label. Noam Chomsky is a man of the people, intensely humanistic and fundamentally democratic. He seems to maintain that if people turn their backs and refuse to acknowledge the obvious, they will have foregone a real opportunity to realise something more sustainable than the current illusion. And, along the way, they will probably have said goodbye to their principles, along with their bank deposits, pensions, retirement and freedom. At least they can talk about their woes on their latest-model mobiles, if, that is, they can still pay the bill. When you read Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy, give its arguments a chance to register. Then see if they ring true.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Child In Time by Ian McEwan

Stephen Lawes appears to be pretty well-heeled. His successes seem remarkable. He is a successful writer of children’s books. He is acquainted with Charles Darke, who is apparently being groomed for a ministerial position in government. Via this connection, Stephen also sits on a Whitehall committee to examine policy options on childhood, children, education and related issues. He himself also seems to have the prime minister’s ear. He has a wife, Julie, who loves him and beautiful little three-year-old daughter, Kate, whom he worships. But then one day Kate is no longer there. On a trip to the shops with her father, there are events that take her out of her parents’ lives.

In her absence, Stephen continues to worship her, to see her walking along the street, in a school playground, perhaps everywhere he tries to look. Meanwhile life goes on, but for Stephen aspects of it begin to disintegrate. The child has stopped his time. There follows, in Ian McEwan’s novel, The Child In Time, an examination of childhood. 

In various guises, this biologically-fixed but socially-defined state is seen to influence and control the lives of the book’s characters. The fact that children are sexually and physically immature human beings whose characteristics are still developing seems pretty immutable. But what is it that demands they should eat special foods from special menus? Is it essential that the experience of childhood should be always multi-coloured, perhaps as a preparation for the unending greyness of adulthood? 

And why, in the twenty-first century is it deemed that children should not work, when in the nineteenth it was considered desirable, perhaps even essential for everyone’s greater well-being? If we are stressed in our daily lives, how much of our ability to cope, or not cope, stems from our ability to re-invent a child’s curiosity and enthusiasm, not to mention naiveté? And is this state also perhaps a place of protecting retreat? 

And how exactly did we manage to create this space? The Child In Time examines several strands of thought relating to infancy, childhood and dependency via the assumptions and reactions of adults. It is a novel with multiple parallel strands, more of a meditation on a theme than a focused, linear progression. It always plays with its ideas. But not all of them work. 

Charles Darke’s adoption of a second childhood, whether conscious or not, as a means of protecting himself from himself, is compellingly credible. But the presence of licensed beggars in a society not located in any particular time or any declared political ideology simply doesn’t wash. This science-fiction element of the book asks a sound but imagined question about our attitudes toward childhood, but jars with and detracts from the rest of the book’s recognisable landscape. 

 As ever, Ian McEwan mixes concepts of philosophy and sociology with the minutiae of daily life. Stephen Lawes does not seem to be wholly credible, however. His mix of interests and capabilities seems to be a tad too eclectic, too widely and thinly spread for him to come across as convincing in any discipline. At times, he seems even peripheral, dashing from one event to the next merely to witness what the author wanted to illustrate. But these are small criticisms of a magnificent book. Eventually the novel provides an uplifting experience. 

It takes the reader to places where the characters find themselves, places where they also want to be. Then, having reached their goal, much of what went before falls into new perspectives, and the whole process might just be ready to start again, but this time in socially-changed garb. It’s a bit like life, really... See this book on amazon The Child in Time

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Steps Of The Sun by Caroline Harvey, aka Joanna Trollope

I approached The Steps Of The Sun not knowing what to expect. Its author was listed as Joanna Trollope writing as Caroline Harvey. I had previously read nothing in either name. But it struck me that if you wanted a nom de plume, then Non de Plume was not a good choice. I persevered, however, largely because I have also never read a novel set in the Boer War. The Steps Of The Sun presents life amongst a middle-class set whose lives are turned upside down by the conflict. Matthew Paget is a college lad, son of a churchman, and he is seeking something exciting out of life. His passions sometimes take him that step too far. He enlists to fight in South Africa without his family’s backing or even knowledge. Will Marriott, his cousin, is a military type and also thinks that way to boot. He performs his duty when required and is proud to represent his country in battle. Hendon Bashford is the obvious cad. He’s half Boer but considers himself true-blood English. His contribution to the conflict will always be against his own people, which ever side he joins. 

There are women in The Steps Of The Sun. Adelaide is the most interesting. She flirts with pacifism, even meets journalists. But then she assists the war in her own way. Matthew’s sister, Frances, tends to the prissy. And then there’s a Boer girl who is twice excused her fate. First her home is not burned down – at least today – and second, apparently unlike all other Boer women, as we are told, she is not pregnant. There are some interesting aspects to the book. A description of the war’s concentration camps is welcome, as is Adelaide’s conflict of interest. But overall what promised to be an intriguing read tended to gloss over the military, fragment the history and barely visit the country. The Steps Of The Sun was still worth reading, but its high points were quite well buried.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Arabia by Jonathan Raban

At the end of the seventies Jonathan Raban wandered across the Middle East. Arabia was the book he wrote after impressionistic visits to Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Yemen, Egypt, Jordan and, briefly, Lebanon. Paradoxically, the book starts and finishes in London, because it was there that questions about Arab identity and culture arose in the author’s mind. 

 In Earls Court the author muses on the question, “Who are the Arabs?” At the time in common prejudice they had a reputation for association with terrorism, being fundamentally religious and having uncountable wealth. So it seems that times have not changed that much… So Jonathan Raban resolved to find out for himself. Unlike most authors of travelogues, however, Jonathan Raban saw his first task as learning the language and, as a result of this laudable approach, Arabia is perhaps more of an achievement than it otherwise might have been. 

In a nutshell, he found Bahrain seedy and Qatar rich but built in a scrap-yard. Abu Dhabi was new and squeaky clean, eager to impress, while Dubai seemed to be populated by business sharks, opportunistic, pragmatic but obsessively driven and eager to excel. All Yemenis appeared to be overactive dwarves on a spending spree. Egypt was big and scruffy, and Jordan was like Switzerland with parties.

You will gather immediately that Arabia is not an in-depth study of Arab culture, society or indeed anything else. Its pages are heavily populated with stories of expatriates, the sort of people who might be eager to talk over a drink in a bar. Though he quotes Thesiger, Jonathan Raban seems to have neither the inclination nor the means to follow the explorer into the desert. This is not a criticism. He also quotes Alice, but does not venture into wonderland. But there again, perhaps he does precisely that, especially in Abu Dhabi. 

Thirty years later, a casual visitor to the places Jonathan Raban frequented might have similar impressions, except the places and the associated reactions would all be much bigger. Bahrain’s planned causeway was built and at weekends there are even more Saudis doing what Saudis do at weekends. Abu Dhabi is vastly more splendid, and Dubai is still trying to be the tallest, biggest, the best in something measurable and sellable.

Jordan may well be significantly poorer than the country Jonathan Raban found. It seems he may have found it difficult to escape the swish diplomatic and international resident areas, and he never made it to Wadi Rum or Petra, so didn’t even have a tourist experience to relate. I have never been to Yemen or Egypt, so I cannot comment on them. One thing that always comes across in Jonathan Raban’s work is a willingness to engage with people, very often over a whisky! And, though Arabia might only make a very light scratch across the surface of its subject, its focus on individual vignettes makes it a highly entertaining and engaging read. The region is no doubt still host to many others like them. 

The book is also mildly informative. And, on a weekend where debates rage on the proposed construction of a mosque in New York, it is interesting to reflect how little attitudes towards the book’s subject seem to have changed.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Solar by Ian McEwan

Usually – if such a word can be applied to rare events – Nobel Laureates are recognised towards the end of a lifetime’s achievement. The true significance of work has to be established before it can be recognised. Michael Beard, modifier of Einstein’s photovoltaics, producer of the Beard-Einstein Conflation, or should that have been the Einstein-Beard Conflation, seemed to receive his ultimate recognition a tad early in life. Surely it would have been the proposed grand application of his work that swayed the judges rather than the mere realisation of theory. So if there is to be a criticism of Ian McEwan’s novel, Solar, it is precisely this. 

But then Michael Beard always was a precocious winner, after coming first in a beautiful baby award. So there. This is my only criticism of Solar. I thought that Ian McEwan would never write anything to challenge the intensity, complexity, ease of expression and irony of Saturday. But Solar achieves all of this and much more.

In his professional life, Michael Beard is a scientist, a physicist with an interest in light. Energy becomes his focus and, via his photovoltaic conflation, he begins to address energy production for a warming planet. Or does he? Does he receive rather than initiate? And does he acknowledge? Both meticulous and precise in his professional guise, Michael Beard is a sybaritic, lecherous slob in the private domain. 

We meet him first upon his fifth wife, Patrice. With her he has at last found happiness – at least when they are together. Periods apart find him pursuing anything available before or after a half a bottle of Scotch. Unknown to him, Patrice is doing precisely the same, but remaining sober. From Michael Beard’s conventionally misogynist standpoint, this seems unfair and he calls foul. Aldous is just the sort of bloke that – all things being equal (which of course they are not!) – Michael Beard would both ignore and avoid. He’s big, hefty, wears sandals and a pony tail. 

His apparently laid back approach to life is surely anathema to Michael Beard’s internally perceived order. After all, didn’t a youthful Beard sport a jacket and tie with pens in the top pocket right through the 1960s? How times change, he might reflect, on pushing aside a pile of unwashed dishes mixed with general detritus in his London flat. But besides threatening, Aldous is also brilliant. He is a young post-doc recruited to assist Michael’s research. 

And then there’s Tarpin, a builder decidedly not of the same social class as the venerable academic. Things come together at the end of the book’s first part. Suffice it to say that Michael Beard’s involuntary circumcision at the hands of frost while taking a leak somewhere near Spitzbergen might just have been Mother Nature getting her own back, her feminist equaliser before the stronger opposition has even scored. Unfortunately for Michael Beard, however, his tendency to spread himself too thinly provokes the termination of his Government-sponsored energy research. The director, Braby, sacks him, an act that injures pride. Michael internalises the rejection not as a failure but as an opportunity, given his multiple avenues of interest. How can it offend him? He’s won a Nobel Prize. Can’t he do precisely what he wants, even beyond criticism? 

 Beard is confronted with alternative views of both life and the universe. Everything follows. Later he is apparently committed to just one woman, Melissa, but without marriage, mutually-agreed. But he is constantly pulled elsewhere. His logical-positivist assumptions are questioned, both at home and abroad. People can lie, deconstruct, reconstruct. So can he. The only consistency in his personal life is its inconsistency, constantly inconsistent. But his professional assumptions are questioned by social constructivism, by phenomenological attack on the universality he assumes. The consequence is an irrational but wholly real reconstruction of a reality he thought he had both defined and described. His method of coping is enigmatic and inventive, but its public expression is totally uncontrolled, misconceived. 

 Michael’s research points to a breakthrough in energy production. He can split water using sunlight and catalysts that promote artificial photosynthesis. He can truly harness the sun. Perhaps it vies for the centre of his universe. The results can burn carbon-free to power the world. His new daughter calls him a saviour. But his business brain shares his scientific nodes. He has patents. He hires Hammer to deal with detail, a task he accomplishes supremely until just before the scheduled switch on of the prototype in the New Mexico desert. 

The rest is history. Solar presents a multiplicity of themes. But I think its main plank is an age-old conundrum. In an address presenting the Nobel Prize to Beard, a professor refers to Feynman’s illustration of the elegance of Beard’s Conflation. Tangled, knotted strings that dancers further complicate can, under the right conditions, with the right foresight, fall to a simple untangled simplicity with a single tug. Thus Beard had taken a knotted intellectual theory and let it fall free of its complications. In his private life, however, Beard truly found complication. What was simple he knotted by quirk, by over-indulgence, by ill-discipline and by visceral opportunity. 

If the beautiful but independently-minded Melissa was temporarily unavailable across an ocean that provided the vacuum, then the fiftyish, flabby Darlene, a waitress in a New Mexico diner, provided the pressure. But she took her temporary role seriously, an attitude that Michael Beard never expected. No matter how complicated our lives become, no matter how intertwined, no matter how independently we present identity, career, research or discovery, ultimately they all reduce to a simple cocktail of body fluids, desires – usually only partly fulfilled - and ultimately a resort to self-preservation, a fundamental state that can be obscured by our relentless pursuit of receding detail. 

Thus Ian McEwan presents a contrast between potentially enduring rationality that seeks out permanence and base, immediate desire driven by instincts we cannot even recognise, let alone control. At the last, it is illusory permanence that presents the true delusion. And what about constancy and the enduringly rational? Ask me tomorrow. See this book on amazon Solar

Friday, August 13, 2010

Tree by F Sionil José

Having just re-read Ngugi’s A Grain Of Wheat, I decided to visit Frankie Sionil José’s novel Tree. Ngugi described a struggle for freedom that succeeded. The perspective he chose was that of poor people caught up in events. Francisco Sionil José, on the other hand, describes the aftermath of a national struggle that failed, and from the point of view of the middle classes who may even have benefited from the USA’s initially opportunist snatch of victory from the nationalists. 

In the Philippines, the struggle was against Spain, and it was won. But then Spain collapsed and the USA intervened and a new war had to be won. From the point of view of Filipinos, perhaps it was lost. Four hundred years in a convent followed by fifty in Hollywood is how Filipinos often sum up their history. 

In its own way, Francisco Sionil José attempts a description of that history via his sequence of Rosales novels. Tree covers the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, and follows the growth of its main character from a child to a freshman medical student. It describes the Philippines from Commonwealth to independence. Crucially, when the latter arrives, it is hardly celebrated. The social order has long since been cemented and our family in Rosales are on the landowners’ side. Independence brings the Huk rebellion and a dangerous challenge to their status. 

 Tree is a novel that is not strong on plot. It is almost possible to read its chapters as a series of short stories, portraits of the people and events that filled its narrator’s life. In concept, the Rosales novels have something – only something, I stress! – in common with Anthony Powell’s Dance To The Music Of Time. They bear witness, but only rarely interpret. In the centre of Rosales, a small town in Pangasinan, north of Manila, is a large, old and rambling balete tree. It seems to be indestructible. Even when an American soldier with an excavator runs into it, the tree survives. The excavator is ruined – the hardware, not the person – and hangs around until locals cut it up for scrap. Now there’s a comment on the USA’s legacy in the Philippines. Spain’s colonial legacy survives in the form of vocabulary, names of dishes and of people. 

What’s in a name? The answer is a culture – a landowner versus a peasant, a Catholic versus an Aglipayan, not to mention a new-fangled follower of Iglesia Ni Kristo. Tree, essentially, is an impressionistic picture of a small society. There are hints at conflict, suggestions of the unrealised, usually centred on lack of rights to land, to produce, to opportunity. In microcosm, Tree suggests what the Philippines might have been, but never achieved. Crucially, had it done so, its main character would probably never have the chance of entering medical school. It is also important to note that beneath the balete tree nothing grows. Now most tropical earth stays blank when it is denied light. In Tree, F. Sionil José uses this image to suggest that, left to its own device, maybe the Philippines might have prospered – but then maybe not. After all, the tree was indigenous. 

Tree is a novel replete with cultural experience mixed with personal reference. Its lack of linear plot has to be accepted and not criticised. It’s just not that kind of book. And, as with most things Filipino, there’s much more going on under the surface, despite the fact that under the tree there’s nothing but bare earth. View this book on amazon Tree

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Grain Of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

Returning to a masterpiece to re-examine its brilliance is always a risky business. There is always the threat of disappointment, a gradual realisation that an earlier decade’s evaluation might now reveal merely one’s own naiveté, a contemporary – and no doubt illusory - sophistication of falsely-assumed wisdom. Perhaps it might all be just appear a little mundane from new detachment.

So it was with some trepidation that I again began A Grain Of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I first read it in the 1970s when I lived in Kenya. In those days, the author still answered to ‘James’ and the novel was on the Literature in English syllabus for the East African Certificate of Education. Our students came from a poor area, weren’t the most academic and studied in their third language. I wonder daily at their commitment, hard work and achievement. A Grain Of Wheat is not an easy book. Over-simplification of a complex world was not amongst its author’s intentions.

I read it again a couple of times a decade later. Then I found layers that as a relative youngster I had missed. This was no longer just a work of historical fiction offering illustration and interpretation of Kenya’s struggle for independence. It was now also a committed political novel, never a polemic, however, since it was via the actions of its characters that the images and relationships were defined. And this time, nearly twenty more years on, I find the book’s stature has grown again. Not only has it passed the test of time, its themes have, if anything, become even more pertinent. And this time, confirming the book’s now unquestioned status as a masterpiece, I find yet another strand of meaning laced into its construction. It is not merely a masterpiece. Indeed, it ought to required reading for British students, just in case there might be anyone left with any doubts about the reality of colonialism.

A Grain Of Wheat is a novel. It is set in Kikuyuni, ridges rising north from the Nairobi area towards Mount Kenya, Kirinyaga, Girinyaga. The setting is real. Its story is placed firmly within a particular place and time. We are in the last years of Kenya’s struggle for independence, the goal of Uhuru. But Ngugi describes and illustrates this history via the lives and experiences of characters who inhabit a small town, Thabai. History tells us blankly the sum of their efforts, the eventual victory against the British, the lowering of the Union Jack in December 1963 and its replacement by Kenya’s black red and green. But via fiction, Ngugi gives us far more than this. We feel history develop via the experience, the detail, the suffering, the commitment, the inadequacies and the treachery of people who lived through the time.

Thabai has a small town’s usual share of freedom fighters, collaborators, colonial officers, whites of both sexes, beautiful girls, ambitious men. There are Christians, traditionalists, traitors, old codgers and plenty of others who claim to be human. Acts perpetrated by the colonial administrators and their lackeys are sometimes nothing less than raw sadism. They seem to be motivated by a keen, though unjustifiable sense of superiority, an apparent mission to Anglicise an unwilling world. Ngugi could have concentrated on these acts, vilified their perpetrators and thus created simple bad-boys to serve his plot. But A Grain Of Wheat is much more subtle than that. In many ways, these people are victims as well. Their only advantage is that, for a while, they have power on their side. And it is the struggle of motivated people that must wrest this advantage from them.

A Grain Of Wheat presents characters who suffer for what they do, struggle to achieve what they want to become. They want to remain faithful to their convictions, but in a time of strife motives are often provided by the most pressing influence, and often that does not have right on its side.

What comes across this time from reading A Grain Of Wheat is the book’s intense Christian allegory. Joseph and Mary here are Gikonyo and Mumbi, perhaps an original coupling of legend. He is even a carpenter and Mumbi’s child actually belongs to someone else, Karanja. He is a man tainted with the sins of a previous age and surely he has passed these on to his child, who is born with their originality. And as far as Gikonyo is concerned, Mumbi’s child is a virgin birth.

The child, of course, is the new Kenya, born with all the injustices and sins of the past, but charged with its own independence, its potential to develop into its unknown future. The fact that it will be offered in sacrifice on the cross of capitalism is a reality lived in Ngugi’s later work.

A Grain Of Wheat not only bears re-reading. It is a powerful enough vision to sustain re-interpretation, though of course only at the level of detail. The book’s message was always clear, though always subtly drawn. It is a great, great achievement.

View A Grain Of wheat on amazon
A Grain of Wheat (Penguin Modern Classics)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Coasting by Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban’s Coasting is a book that defies labels. It’s not a novel. It might be a travel book. It might also be an autobiography, or even a politicised journal. What it is not is dull. Back in the 1980s, Jonathan Raban decided to chill out on a boat. He found the Gosfield Maid, a hearty, old-fashioned wooden thing that could chug along at a few knots and decided to circumnavigate the circumnavigable Britain. He failed. He opted out of the northern challenge and took the easy route through the Caledonian Canal. None of this is at all relevant to the book, by the way, because it’s not a travelogue. And who cares if, on a quest to record the intricacies of an island’s coast, you miss out a bit? 

 But Jonathan Raban does travel Britain’s coast. And here and there he describes experience, recalls memories and reacts to current events, but in no particular order. He is particularly enamoured with the Isle of Man. Its insularity seems to mirror, perhaps concentrate, the insularity of the English. The Isle of Man’s microcosm occupies much of the early part of the book, so much in fact that the reader wonders how the author will manage to cover the rest. Rest assured, however, for he has no intention of doing that. 

The book might also not be an autobiography, but we learn a lot of the author’s parents and family life in the Raban household. They started as fairly conventional Church of England vicar and vicar’s wife cassocked and aproned in rural serenity. We meet them later, slightly hippied, father bearded and radicalised, both CNDed and residing alongside Pakistani grocers and amidst less salubrious activities along the Solent. The author’s school years also figure. He was unlucky enough to attend a less than prestigious public school. For Americans, for whom the label will be incomprehensible, I qualify that in England public schools are private. Don’t ask. But they are renowned for their unique, often idiosyncratic cultures. 

 Jonathan Raban regularly found himself at the fag-end of upper middle-class society, but without the personal economic base to back up his pretensions. Coasting, by the way, is not an autobiography. Neither is Coasting a memoir. But Jonathan Raban calls in at Hull on England’s east coast. He finds a largely forgotten city that once fished. By the 1980s its giant fish dock was deserted, its trawlers chased out by Britain’s defeat in the Cod war with Iceland. He went to university there and befriended one of the nation’s great poets of the century, Philip Larkin. Their meeting is precious. He had also conversed with Paul Theroux along the way. 

 Coasting is also not a political book. Jonanthan Raban, however, does record some detail of Margaret Thatcher’s conflict with the Argentine over The Falklands and with the English over coal mines. Coasting is also not a personal confession on identity, but the author clearly does not number himself amongst the victorious Tories who idolised their imperatrix. Coasting is a compelling read, a snapshot of personal and societal priorities from 1980s Britain. If you lived through the influences and references, the book presents a vibrant commentary on the period. If you didn’t, either because you are too young or not British, it’s a good way of learning how history surely does repeat itself. Coasting is a book that can become almost whatever you want it to be. It is superbly written, journalistic in places, poetic in others. It’s a travel book that goes wherever it wants. View this book on amazon Coasting (Picador Books)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd

Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem is quite simply a masterpiece. Every aspect of the novel is remarkable. It’s a whodunit, though it suggests a couple of credible suspects right at the start. It even convicts its central character to death by hanging before we have even got to know her. Clearly things are not going to be obvious. The novel is also a study in character, especially that of its central actor, Lambeth Marsh Lizzie, later Mrs Elizabeth Cree. It’s also an evocation of London in the late nineteenth century, complete with colours, smells, vistas and perspectives. 

It’s a highly literary work, ever conscious of its place beside the genres it skirts. Overall, it’s a wonderful example of how form can be used as inventively as plot to create a story. The novel has a series of interlocking stands. In one our anti-heroine, Lizzie, is accused of the murder of John Cree, her husband. In another, John Cree’s diary reveals certain secrets that not only he would have wanted to hide. In a third strand, we learn of Lambeth Marsh Lizzie’s past, how she came to a life in the theatre and how she met her husband. A fourth strand follows the career of Dan Leno, a music hall player, worshipper of the silent clown Grimaldi and mentor of Lizzie’s stage life. And in a fifth strand we see how, in a great city like London, our paths inevitably cross those of great thinkers, writers, artists and, of course, history itself. Peter Ackroyd thus has his characters cross the paths of a writer, George Gissing, and a thinker of note, one Karl Marx, as they tramp the streets of Limehouse after a day at the library. 

 As usual, sex has a lot to do with the relationships in the book. It is usually on top, but here it also comes underneath and sometimes on the side of events. Mrs Cree is accused of poisoning her husband. Their married life has been far from conventional, but are its inadequacies the motive for a series of brutal killings of prostitutes and others in the Limehouse area? As a result of the curious placement of certain trophies, the killings are attributed in the popular mind to a golem, a mythical creature made of clay that can change it shape at will. Karl Marx examines the Jewish myths surrounding the subject. Others steer clear of the subject. Lizzie continues on the stage until she meets her husband. She learns much stagecraft from Dan Leno and eventually resolves to help her husband to complete the play over which he has unsuccessfully laboured. When the book’s plot resolves, we are surprised, but then everything makes such perfect sense. And in a real piece of insight, Peter Ackroyd likens the mass murderer to Romaticism perfected, the ultimate triumph of individualism. There is much to stimulate the mind in this thriller. 

 A reader of this review might suspect that Dan leno And The Limehouse Golem is a difficult read, a book whose diverse strands never converge. But quite the contrary is true: it comes together in a wonderful, fast-flowing manner to a resolution that is both highly theatrical yet thoroughly credible. Read it many times. View the book on amazon Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Serpent In Paradise by Dea Birkett

Towards the end of Serpent In Paradise Dea Birkett offers a personal confession. “We all hold a place in our hearts – a perfect place – which is the shape of an island. It provides refuge and strength; we can always retreat to its perfection. My mistake was to go there.” It may have been another mistake to have written about it. Serpents In Paradise is a perfectly good read. It is well written, if a little clumsy here and there. Personally, I blame the editor. It’s a travel book, relating the history and experience of the author’s quest to Pitcairn island.

At the time of writing, just over two hundred years had elapsed since sine the famous mutineers on The Bounty had stumbled upon a wrongly-mapped island in the south Pacific. Thus they found their own perfect hiding place, so they burned their bridges, in their case a ship. It is largely their descendents who still inhabit Pitcairn and it was in this society that Dea Birkett sought her own personal paradise. Getting to and from Pitcairn is an adventure in itself. It has no regular services and no harbour. A visitor has to make an application to the island’s authorities – basically the entire population – for permission to land. 

And Pitcairn islanders don’t like writers. Dea Birkett’s ruse to gain access was a project on the Island’s postal service, whose stamps and franks are both rare and in high demand from collectors. Then you have to find a freighter, usually out of New Zealand, over three thousand miles distant, that happens to be charting a course near to Pitcairn and is planning to pause there. When this happens, the Island’s entire population turns out. There are supplies to be delivered, fish to sell to the ship, trinkets to sell to the crew. Occasionally, there are people to transfer up or down the rope ladder. The author made it into the pitching longboat below, but initially failed in several other feats during her stay. 

What she did accomplish was the creation of a rather light, impressionistic view of life within a dwindling island community. We are on first name terms form the start, but strangely most of the characters we meet retain an anonymity. As we read on, an explanation emerges. Dea Birkett eventually records how this community usually seems to act as a single entity. They share tasks, forage, fish and cultivate in groups. Decisions emerge out of communally chewing over an issue, apparently without ever confronting it directly. They are driven by their religion, Seventh Day Adventism, to impose restrictions on possibility, but then not everyone takes the rules seriously, hence the local division of inhabitants into “old and young”, effectively traditional and modern. But the tradition came from foreigners in the late nineteenth century, and the modern involves imported beer. And it was into this largely biblically-literal society that Dea Birkett brought her serpent. 

As in the original, it was temptation embodied. Forbidden fruit were tasted. There was a fall from Grace. And yet the author does not tell us whether there were consequences as a result of her island fling. She does, however, continue the quote at the start of this review as follows: “Dreams should be nurtured and elaborated upon; they should never be visited. By going to Pitcairn, I had vanquished the perfect place within myself.” And thus we reach the nub of the problem. With the printed word, the medium is not the message. This always has to be disentangled, revealed and understood. In Serpent In Paradise, we have a perfectly good read, a well-described travel experience, but it may be too focused on a journey within to really take us there. View this book on amazon Serpent in Paradise

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Burr by Gore Vidal

The passage of time edits history. The roughness and corners of detail wear away under the constant erosion of recall and interpretation. Eventually, unless events or people are sufficiently insignificant so they can be merely forgotten, the process rounds off what remains to form mere icons, summaries that become anodyne cartoons of once complex events and motives. I can recall the celebrations that surrounded the bi-centennial of the American Revolution. At the time, I thought I knew something about the history. Names such as Washington, Jefferson and Adams became commonplace for a while. 

A couple of years before, Gore Vidal had published his novel Burr, which I had not read. Having just finished it, nearly forty years after it appeared, I now know much more. In the novel Gore Vidal presents a history of the War Of Independence and its aftermath through the eyes of a contemporary, Aaron Burr, who was Vice President to Thomas Jefferson. Burr’s form is a brilliant invention. The treatment enhances the content, allowing Gore Vidal to lay several perspectives before the reader. Aaron Burr lived to a ripe old age. 

We meet him first in the 1830s approaching his final years. He is still very much an active participant in life, however. He still has an eye for the ladies, two very big eyes for money or opportunity, and a very much alive and kicking penchant for political dabbling. His proclivities have left a world-wide trail of successes and failures, personal, political and familial. A gentleman called Schuyler, who considers himself Dutch first, American second, is commissioned to write the old man’s memoirs, after a fashion. He researches, contacts and interviews. There is a motive. The writer’s commission is barbed. What Burr might reveal can be used to lever contemporary political advantage. Schuyler’s task is to prise out the useful from the detail the old man might reveal. And it is from this quest that the book’s eventual surprise materialises. It is, however, quite a long wait. 

Schuyler meets Burr several times and, on each occasion, the old man develops a section of his memoir. The writer records the words and, here and there, interprets. Burr has lived a long and eventful life. His rise to fame was accelerated by participation in the War Of Independence. He became a battlefield commander and earned a reputation for success, not difficult when apparently everyone else involved, in Burr’s estimation at least, lacked commitment, competence or both. This included George Washington, who is revealed as a selfish, bungling incompetent. Burr was also, both by choice and inevitable proximity, a confidante and colleague of Thomas Jefferson, who saw Burr as a competitor. Jefferson’s ideals are portrayed as naiveté and his judgment as eccentric. 

And Burr was always a threat to Jefferson’s personal interest and ambition, and thus had to be controlled, manipulated, excluded, undermined. As ever, for the good of the country, of course… But Burr was a survivor. A tempestuous private life riddled with success, failure, allegation and counter-claim, alongside a roller-coaster political career took the central character close to both power and ruin, ecstasy and despair. It also took him close to death several times. Burr’s enduring claim to fame is the duel he fought against a rival, Alexander Hamilton. Their long-standing rivalry is chartered through the book. Hamilton’s death in the duel surfaces many times in Burr’s narrative before the event itself is presented and, of course, there is more than meets the eye. 

 Gore Vidal states that he chooses to write historical fiction rather than history to reveal the frailties and shortcomings of icons such as Washington and Jefferson. He cites fiction’s ability to ascribe opinion, its opportunity to create illustrative drama via dialogue in meetings that only might have happened. And at this level, Burr is a remarkable success. Events and people that have become statuesque icons are questioned, reassessed and often revealed as quite different from what we have learned to assume. Burr is also a book of forensic detail and, when that detail is reaffixed to the historical figures we thought we already knew, it is surprising to see them anew, revealed as merely human. It is not a book for the uncommitted reader who might be only partially interested in its subject. This, eventually, is its strength. View the book on amazon Burr (Narratives of a Golden Age)

Worst Fears by Fay Weldon

Fay Weldon’s novel Worst Fears starts and finishes with bereavement. It examines how a woman deals with simultaneous loss and revealed betrayal. Alexandra is an actress, if I might be excused such gender specificity. She is also quite successful. She is currently appearing in a London West End production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. She is therefore away from home a lot. Her husband Ned has just died, apparently discovered on the floor of the family home by a visitor. It was a sudden and massive heart attack. Alexandra wonders what might have brought it on. She takes time off work, thus allowing an understudy temporarily to take her role. 

She returns to the rickety, old, antique-stuffed cottage in the country. It is perhaps a rural idyll that now has to be rewritten. Her worst fears are that there is more than meets the eye. She also has some hopes, but from the start it seems unlikely they will be realised. She is greeted by the dog, Diamond, who seems to know something is wrong. She contacts local acquaintances, Lucy and Abbie, whom she suspects know more than they are saying. Hamish, her husband’s brother, comes to stay to help sort things out. Sascha, Alexandra and Ned’s little boy is with Irene, Alexandra’s mother. It happens often when Alexandra is away at work. 

Her husband Ned, as usual needed space at home to concentrate. He was, by the way, was an authority on theatre, a critic, an expert on Ibsen and also interested in costume design. As Alexandra delves into recent events, she discovers a tangle of interests, relationships and liaisons. All of them have implications for her, despite the fact that she was often not directly involved. The protagonists relate directly to one another. They socialise, if that might be the right word. They interact. They act. They play-act. Alexandra’s worst fears begin to materialise. Ned’s surname is Ludd. It is surely not a coincidence that he shares a name with one of the wreckers of history. He is the only developed male character in the novel, despite his being dead. He never speaks, but his presence pervades, perhaps even controls everything that the still living can do. The truths of his life have been at best partial, his interests specifically personal. It seems that the women are positioning themselves to lay claim to ownership of his memory. 

And thus recollection, rumour and revelation unfold their tangle. The above may suggest a rather one-dimensional approach towards a feminist moral, but it is much more subtle than that. This thread is there, of course, and is epitomised when Alexandra’s part in A Doll’s House – itself a play about women and emancipation – is exploited to success by her understudy via sexual stereotyping. And Worst Fears opens with two of the women involved viewing Ned’s body, their attention drawn to a part of his anatomy that is to become one of the book’s main actors. Their reverence is sincere as they genuflect before their flaccid altar. This accepted, it seems also that the book deals more fundamentally with the more universal issues of self-interest and selfishness. All of these characters, despite their often social or private relations, are in conflict. They compete with one another and even with themselves. When liberation becomes a possibility, it is revealed as no more than an opportunity for even greater self-obsession, a means of shutting out the interest of others. 

 As the plot of Worst Fears unfolds, the impression it leaves is that these accomplished, middle-class, apparently comfortable people are all still engaged in a primeval struggle for raw animal dominance. The currency that is hoarded in the process remains the same as it would have been if the characters had never evolved from quadruped apes in a forest gang. There is no liberation here, for anyone, except, that is, via their words, the very weapons they use to prod, punch, pierce the reality that effectively confines them to themselves. These could be anyone’s worst fears. View the book on amazon Worst Fears

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake presents the reader with a significant but rewarding challenge. Though as an author she rejects any association with the term “science fiction”, that basically is the genre in which this novel lives. And it really does come to life, though exactly which life-form might be open to debate. Oryx and Crake are nicknames. Both are animal species and both are extinct. Oryx is female and Crake is male. They are both acquaintances of Snowman, who is really Jimmy. We are in a dystopic future – a common enough setting for a sci-fi. 

But where Margaret Atwood’s work transcends such clichés of genre is in the development and description of character. Not only is their situation remarkable, so are their responses to it. What they sense as mundane is quite different from the reader’s. From very early on in the book, we engage primarily with the characters and their responses, but we know immediately that we are in a different world that we see only through their assumptions. This is writing of real skill.

Eventually it is the nature of the dystopia that provides the tension. We are all products of environment and circumstance., but in Oryx and Crake both of these are to some extent the products of the characters’ labour. Though there are no lengthy descriptions to set the scene, it is the events that led up to the world’s parlous state that are central to the story. We are in a future where human society is fragmented and disjointed. What began as the operation of a market has forced a complete separation of social classes. The clean, even sterile, world of the middle class intellectual is a closed world. Filtered, protected, disease-free. Genetic engineering has bred out of existence many of those annoying aspects of humanity. 

That was, of course, before the environment was declared toxic, a fact that is a mere given for the book’s characters. Growing up in such a world presents its own challenges. The usual ones of family break-up, unrealised aspiration, selfishness, self-obsession and power-lust obviously survive. But in a world where anything has a price and everything is sold, at least virtually, how is a growing lad to approach life? Well, no doubt, they’ll make a pill for it. Education is rigidly class-based, of course, so no change there then. And then enter, jointly, a genetic engineer so brilliant that he can transform every aspect of even the already transformed and a willingly sold-on sex slave who has starred in many a virtual experience. Bring the two together and the chemistry surely has to reach instability. Jimmy the Snowman is their admirer, colleague and acquaintance, though never in that order. And, if it can go wrong, it probably will, just like it did in the past. 

 Oryx and Crake is no “Genetic Mutants Rule Manhattan”. It is a much more subtle and engaging idea than that. But perhaps the idiom did take over too much, thus allowing Margaret Atwood to get just a little too much frustration with contemporary life off her chest at one go. When it came, the emergence of a plot and denouement seemed a little contrived. And there were places where things did seem to get bogged down. But Oryx and Crake is also an experimental book. It is written from inside the experience of characters whose values have been sold on as cheaply as life itself. When, eventually, you cut your foot, however, it still hurts, despite what the product claims on the tin. 

So, as ever with Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s the humanity and character that comes through, making Oryx and Crake a strange but rewarding glimpse of a strangely familiar future. View the book on amazon Oryx and Crake