Something rotten…

In Act 1, Scene iv of Hamlet, the appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost prompts an officer of the watch, Marcellus, to say “something is rotten at the heart of Denmark”, if you replace Denmark with Russia, then the book I am posting on now, will tell you why.

Red Notice by Bill Browder reads like a typical Russian thriller, the difference is that this is non-fiction. For what he did and why he did it, and lastly for the reasons for this book, Bill Browder takes full responsibility, and because this led to the death of a good man, and led to Bill becoming Number 1 enemy of Russia, this book above all, in one that you should read.

BrowderIt is not often that I put a large chunk of quoted text at the beginning of a blog…

I have to assume that there is a very real chance that Putin or members of his regime will have me killed some day. Like anyone else, I have no death wish and I have no intention of letting them kill me. I can’t mention most of the counter-measures I take, but I will mention one: this book. If I’m killed, you will know who did it. When my enemies read this book, they will know that you know. So if you sympathize with this search for justice, or with Sergei’s tragic fate, please share this story with as many people as you can. That simple act will keep the spirit of Sergei Magnitsky alive and go further that any army of bodyguards in keeping me safe.

With today’s internet reach, you will be able to follow the steps that led to Sergei Magnitsky’s torture and death by the simple act of clicking on Google; you can look at YouTube videos of some of the perpetrators if you click on Pavel Karpov or Artem Kuznetsov; I think you could even click on the name Alexander Perepilichnyy and something will come up.

But to link all these names together with Bill Browder, you need to read the book.

Bill Browder started life as a man with a mission: to make money, as much and as fast as he could, and he looked to Eastern Europe as a place where that ambition could be realised. Naively, though, what he did not realise is that sometimes making huge amounts of money in Eastern Europe, especially in Russia, does not always go according to plan.

What happened to Hermitage Capital Management, then to his investors but tragically to the lawyers who helped him, is the stuff of nightmares and turned Bill Browder from a capitalist super-rich hedge fund manager into a human rights activist.

Once his lawyers were being targeted, Bill Browder did everything he could to persuade them to leave Russia, two of them made it out safely, but Sergei Magnitsky determined to fight on as “he had done nothing wrong”. But doing nothing wrong is not enough to keep you out of the hands of those who wish to do you harm: Sergei was arrested, subjected to unlimited cruelty and medical neglect and finally beaten to death.

From this black and terrible seed there has arisen a mighty tree.  The United States of America have passed The Magnitsky Act, this act prevents anyone on The Cardin List (the Senator who proposed the Bill) from travelling to America and was signed by President Obama.

Sergei Magnitsky had a young family, as has Bill Browder, if reading their story does anything at all, it will serve as a monument to the appalling situation in Russia, for Putin’s riposte to America’s passing of The Magnitsky Act went beyond even the bounds of cruelty – he passed an act that prevents any American family from adopting a Russian orphan…thereby condemning millions of innocent children to a life that will be short, brutal and miserable.


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Man Booker Prize Short List 2017

Well, of all the oddball lists over the last few years this absolutely wins the prize. When you look at the full longlist which I have been banging on about over the last weeks, you have to wonder what happened?

Did the judges decide, in the end, not to consider ANY book that had already won a prize? If so, were there not many other worthy un-prize winning novels that qualified and could have taken up those spaces?

Having put in quite a number of quirky, stylistically challenging novels in the longlist, to then leave out Solar Bones, in favour of two debut novels, one of which was decidedly weak seems quite bizarre. Granted, it is marvellous when a first novel by a new author gets a chance, but when you put these two: Elmet by Fiona  Mozely and Emily Fridland’s History of Wolves up against previous debut novels – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Moshin Hamid) and The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy) to name two authors who are on this year’s shortlist, and The Commitments by Roddy Doyle, and several others, it seems to spell out the vast intellectual space between the two chosen, and other first novels chosen in previous years, which went on to win.

Like it or loathe it. No one is ever going to agree with all the judges choices, there will always be people like me, saying “why this and not that”. But looking at the coverage in today’s papers there does seem to be a pretty universal cry of “What just happened?” And equally a great deal of press about Elmet, (debut British novelist etc) the first chapter having been written on a mobile phone during rush hour…

My money, if I did place a bet which I do not, would be on George Saunders

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India – then and now

While I am still struggling with Infinite Jest, I am interspersing the agony with other reading.

This week it is India. I thought in honour of the year, I should re-read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. A Man Booker prize winner at the time and then a Man Booker of the decades with this novel, the prize winner of all prize winners. Worthy, deserved and hugely rewarding to read.

SalmanI think everyone knows that it is the life story of Saleem Sinai, born on the stroke of midnight at the moment India and Pakistan were divided. This was only Salman Rushdie’s second novel and what a towering success it became.

I think it is true to say that many people reading “Indian fiction” got their insights from Europeans writing about the British Raj.  There were, in the early twentieth century, very few India writers being published in Britain. So the sources were Paul Scott‘s The Raj Quartet, EM Forster The Passage to India, JG Farrell Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur and similar, not forgetting Rudyard Kipling, of course.

Then a trickle began, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala with Heat and Dust, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry and others, but what was significant about these was that they all lived abroad. But they were a post-partition generation and wrote about India now. The trickle became a flood and then a cataract, and with Arundhati Roy we got a writer who lives and works in India. She too won the Man Booker prize for her novel The God of Small Things.

ArvindaSo we come to today, with both Indian and Pakistani writers publishing in Britain. Among them, Aravind Adiga, whose first novel The White Tiger also won the Man Booker Prize. The White Tiger was about young entrepreneurs making money in the new booming Indian economy. His latest novel, Selection Day is a similar story of rags to riches, but set in the world of International Cricket as played in India. Two brothers, brought up in the slums, are forcibly trained to be good with bat and ball by their cricket-obsessed father, successfully to start with, they are both marked for great triumph, but when a sponsor arrives things begin to change and a sudden realisation dawns on the younger of the two boys.

From rags to riches has a very unique connotation in a land like India, where there is no health care, no welfare state, no safety net. You only have to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo to understand that. Aravind Adiga has touched the same nerve in his fiction. Katherine’s book was also turned into a play by David Hare and this is what I wrote having read the book and seen the play.

The book [Behind the Beautiful Forevers] was written as a result of Katherine Boo’s personal involvement in the slum dwellers who lived beyond the wall on which the “Beautiful Forever” tiles were advertised. The people living in this squatters’ slum were much more than cyphers, they had relationships well beyond what was portrayed in the play. They had back-stories, their current circumstances and the exigencies of living on the edge, at the mercy of police brutality and veniality; at the mercy of the weather and at the bottom of society – rag pickers, garbage sorters living on the detritus of a much wealthier and prosperous elite, living literally cheek-by-jowl with the evidence of wealth – smart hotels and smart cars and living right beside the most flagrant example of wealth: the airport. All this and more one felt at a visceral level when turning the pages of the book. Largely lost in the play. I doubt whether anyone in the audience who had not previously read the book could have come to anything like a real understanding of the degradation oddly coupled with the sense of personal pride that lived side by side in that slum

There are so many more that I haven’t named, but they are out there and waiting for you to pick them up.

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The Spanish Peninsular

I am reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, a 900+ page door stopper, which I have been told “all literate people should read”. After nearly 200 pages I am still wondering why, and because I can only read for about one and a half hours before I am near to screaming pitch, I have been reading alternative books at the same time.

I Am SpainI am Spain is one such “alternative”. It covers the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939 from the point of view of the International Brigades, the people who went out to fight for the Spanish Republicans from countries across the world. David Boyd Haycock centres his book upon the lives and experiences of the more famous participants: Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and many others, but since they were, in turn, writing about the experiences of those ragged, untrained but willing volunteers from all quarters of the globe, one does somehow get a picture of the Civil War which gets right to the heart of the action.

The more magisterial approach, that say of Antony Beevor, probably gives the reader a rounded, less partisan picture but Boyd Haycock, by presenting a black and white panorama, gives us a clearer notion of what the war was about, and why it mattered to Europe and America in those years between the two World Wars.Beevor on Spain

It is interesting to speculate, as Boyd Haycock does, whether had either America or Britain taken a different interventionist stance and by doing so, defeated Franco, this might have given Hitler pause for thought, and thereby preventing the global conflict, of which Spain was but the testing ground.

scan0009Another book which focusses upon these same “personalities” is Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill. Equally giving the reader a taste of the time. Hotel Florida in Madrid, towards which many of the journalists and photographers gravitated in order to report on the war, was a base from which they could leave to get nearer the action and retreat to in order to write up their reports. Hemingway and Gellhorn had adjoining rooms, and a seemingly endless supply of alcohol, the characters that land up there include many famous names, not least Capa and Taro.

War is not about personalities, but it is in their records more than those of the many volunteers that capture the vile nature of that particular conflict.

DisinheriteeAn even more generalised account of the mass exodus from Spain, as a result of war, persecution or deprivation comes in the form of a book by Henry Kamen. This volume does of course include characters whose lives were affected by the Spanish Civil War, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and many others, but its scope and focus is both broader and wider. For The Disinherited, is a study of The Exiles who created Spanish Culture” and demonstrates how much the whole of Europe and America have benefitted from the contribution that exiles have made to culture.

This is a picture of a country that for centuries exiled some of its most talented citizens in wave after wave of persecution or political necessity, and those exiles’ creative response to their situation. Prevented forever from returning to Spain, they created a mythic, romantic Spain – the Sephardic Jews in Holland, the exiled Moslems from Granada in Morocco to the painters and sculptors in Paris. Each one helped to create a “virtual” Spanish culture whose impact on the world has been immense.

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Man Booker 2017 – my shortlist

I have got a bit of a problem here because I have seven books on my shortlist! The judges will only have six.

Given that, here are my suggestions, in no particular order.

barrySebastian BarryDays Without End – this has already appeared on several lists and won. I enjoyed this novel and consider it among one of his best. I love the way he creates a narrative from character and situation, setting them both against a dramatic historical background and bringing it all vividly to life.

LincolnGeorge SaundersLincoln in the Bardo – this Gothic fantasy snatched from a snippet of historical information, shows a brilliant disregard for the “way in which a novel should be written”. The stylistically daring presentation of historical contemporary writing interspersed with invented dialogue, the setting and the intense rendering of a father’s grief make it both comical and tragic. A masterpiece of imaginative writing.

Exit WestMohsin HamidExit West – this novel must surely be on the shortlist. It is such intelligent prose, capturing some of the most pressing concerns of today. The exodus from a war-torn city; transit camps filled with refugees; perilous conditions. The magic realism may put readers off this book, but I consider that the newsprint and TV streaming amply covers those aspects of the refugee experience that are too horrific to contemplate. It is not that the author skates over the horrors, it is just that he does not expand on them.

Swing TimeZadie SmithSwing Time – I think I made it clear that I am not one of Zadie Smith’s readers, but I think this novel will appear on the shortlist because it does what a novel ought to do: draws you tightly into the narrative and keeps you turning and twisting in the story, so that you must read on.

Underground RailwayColson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad – this is another prize winner already, so I think it will go on the shortlist, but it would have been on my list anyway. It is an unsparing look at what slavery meant, both to the owners and to the slaves. The pursuit of the “property” for its own sake regardless of the time past, but simply because it “belonged” to the owner was, and is, a matter of horrific fact. This novel presents it from the point of view of the runaway. The courage it must have taken is monumental.

4231Paul Auster4321 – a challenging book, 866 pages long, stylistically different and full of complex and mind-altering ideas. Identity, what is it? How does one individual become himself? The reader really has to concentrate, but it is worth it in the end. I would suggest two ways of reading this, either straight through or part by part. I did a bit of both, the cliff-hangers were sometimes too insupportable, and I could not wait to see what happened next, so I skipped to the follow-on. One man, four lives. But whatever you do, don’t read the last “life” through to the end first.

ElmetFiona MozleyElmet – I loved this brooding, English, visionary story. I really felt part of it, the sensations and the scents, the slow-burn of it touched me. It might not be the best book in the pile, but it really deserves the wider audience that a place on the shortlist would give it.

These are the most likely candidates, some are on the list because they have already garnered prizes and therefore have an accredited following, other are stylistically unique and then finally, there is likely to be one debut novel and Fiona Mozley has created a more coherent novel, though both of them were very good.

Reservoir 13So why isn’t Reservoir 13 in this list. Because while I loved it, and love the writing, I know this scatter-gun, unfocussed approach to narrative does not appeal to many readers. I happen to be a great fan of Jon McGregor.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 12

It is very hard to know what to say about Elmet, the debut novel by UK author Fiona Mozley. It is a most remarkable beginning. Set at an undisclosed time, in a Yorkshire setting (Elmet was a Celtic Kingdom, largely spread over Yorkshire) a small family, father and two children make a hardy living in a house built for them by the father..Elmet

They are not travellers, though they have had contact with them; they are not exactly local, though the mother came from this area; they are not socially adept and now do not attend school; they live as much as possible off the land, trapping, foraging and making do.

In a very different way from the family in the other debut novel, Daniel and Cathy, his sister, are living outside society. John, the father has been a prize fighter, but not in the ring. This is illegal, bare-knuckle fighting where prize money comes from betting, and John is in a class apart, the strongest unbeaten fighter in England and Ireland. But during the period which is covered by this narrative, he has in fact given up fighting, though he often goes away leaving the two children to fend for themselves.

The book opens with the consequences of what happens at the end of the novel, and this only becomes apparent slowly. Sections in italics are in the first person narrative of the boy, Daniel. Why he is on his own does not get revealed until the end.

As Daniel travels, he fills in the bigger picture with a description of the events and personalities that led up to the end event.

There is a brooding threat hanging over the story, a supressed violence, which from the start seems to suggest that all is not going to end well. The graphic descriptions of the conditions that this family are living in are powerfully executed, and you really do get a sense of the social dislocation of this family.

On the whole, John is clearly a kind and well intentioned man, he helps out with things that people need doing, picks up odd jobs and has proved capable of building a sizeable and decent house for the family from next to nothing. But they are not safe, and their home life comes under threat from one principle quarter. John has a radical solution and calls in several like-minded people to start a community action which goes well to start with.

But it is in the nature of such things, there will come a backlash and once it comes things speedily change…

The writing is descriptive, moody and tight. There is neither a word too many, nor a word too few. In spare but lucid prose we are given a very clear picture of the situation and the denouement is shockingly violent.

This is very much the sort of book one would hope to find on the shortlist

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 11

“The story of Antigone re-written for the twenty-first century”, this is part of the blurb that accompanies the new novel by Kamila Shamsie. Anyone familiar with Antigone may wonder whether one single, notable and noble act replicated in the narrative of Home Fire, it quite sufficient to say that this is Antigone re-worked.

Antigone demonstrates a wilful disregard for the wishes of King Creon of Thebes in demanding a decent burial for her brother, Polynices, after both her brothers have been killed fighting about which of them should be on the Theban throne. Creon, who takes the throne after the death of these two, decrees that there should be no mourning for Polynices, or burial, on pain of death. Of Eteocles there is no mention!

KamilaKamila Shamsie‘s book has much more to it than this single demonstration of rebellion. The novel is divided into five parts, the first deals with the meeting between Isma, elder sister of the twins Anneka and Parvaiz, and Eamonn the only son of Karamat Lone, a British MP; the second part is Eamonn’s story and how he gets involved with Aneeka, or her with him; the third is the story of Parvaiz; the fourth is Aneeka’s story and the final part is Karamat’s take on the whole situation.

This is the experience of British Muslims living today in a Britain of jihadi terrorism, suspicion, rejection and distrust; it is also the life of a close-knit family who have endured terrible, frightening and fracturing experiences and it is also the story of the lies and misrepresentations that recruiters to The Caliphate use to persuade young people to join the jihad and go to Syria to fight or work or marry into The State and at the same time, it is also the story of how the police, the politicians and indeed the families try to prevent this happening.

In this novel, all these factors clash around the lives of these young people. Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz have no parents, their father was being taken to Guantanamo from Bagram, but died suddenly before he was put on the plane; their mother diminished by this event keeled over dead while at work; Isma becomes de facto mother to the twins and they live with a neighbour in Preston Road, Wembley, Aunty Naseem.

At the beginning of the novel, Isma has won a scholarship to an American university and she is in the airport being interrogated.  Her passport, ticket and boarding pass taken, her bags searched and her plane taking off without her – but her visa and everything is in order.  So finally, having caused her to miss her plane, the authorities come back and breezily tell her that it all checks out and she is free to go – knowing all the time that the boarding pass which they return to her is useless. This may not be typical for every British Muslim from Pakistan leaving this country, but it does happen to a few (and worse).

It is, in many ways, the tone of the whole book: how white British people, especially those in authority, treat people who are different. Karamat Lone, also a Muslim as it happens, voices these positions in his capacity as an MP, sometimes saying that if “they” want to be British they must give up all their foreign practices and ideologies and worse yet, saying about the family that Eamonn has become involved with:

“I know their names. Where they come from. Who they were before they went. There’s only one Preston Road. It’s the last place in England I’d expect to find that kind of thing happening. But that one [Parvaiz], he had exceptional circumstances. Terrorism as family trade. Illustrative of how much you need to do to root out this kind of thing. I mean, literally, grab by the very roots and pull. Pull the children out of those environments before they’re old enough for the poison to seep in.”

Karamat’s intransigence leads inevitably onwards to the final denouement. His misplaced condemnation of his son’s character, his chronic misjudgement of Parvaiz and of his twin sister, Aneeka, and everything about who they really are leads back to his expressed belief in the roots of terrorism. Even when confronted with an alternative narrative, Karamat refuses to move to defuse an appalling situation.

This ought to be deeply moving, but somehow didn’t quite manage it. Shocking certainly, and in places disagreeable to read but it never engaged me emotionally. Which is not quite to say that it was not worth reading, but compared, say, to Jean Anouilh‘s Antigone or The Burial at Thebes by Seamus Heaney it does not hit the mark. I am not sure why.

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