Category Archives: Modern History

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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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 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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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 10

And so on to weightier matters, literally. Paul Auster‘s door-stopping novel weighs in at 1200 grams and 886 pages, a mere bagatelle when compared with David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest which is on my TBR for post Booker reading.

42314321 is the title of this massive book and is the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of newly arrived Russian immigrant Ichabod Ferguson. Family legend having it that Isaac Reznikoff was told  that he would get on better with a more American sounding name, and that Rockefeller was a good name to choose, but on being asked his name, he said in his own tongue Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten).

I have gone into quite a lot of detail to demonstrate here the complexity of the characters and their relationships, so if this seems to be a spoiler to you, rather than an exposition, stop reading where the text colour changes. This novel is a work of philosophy, an exploration of nurture versus nature, of the ‘what ifs’ of life. Ferguson is a thoughtful, observant and rather lonely little boy, in the section where he learns to read he ponders on the accident that has caused his immobility, unwinding the actions and causes and giving some thought to the vagaries of cause and effect, at this point he is only six…

This is an unashamedly American novel, rooted in place and time, rooted in fact, very much, in Paul Auster’s own place and time. Various key world events lock us into when this is all taking place: the ending of the war in Europe, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Korean War and other similar. Baseball features, teams that in Europe may have little meaning, take on importance, at some level and probably mirror actual games and players, I have no idea.

Like Michael Chabon and Howard Jacobson it is also decidedly Jewish, though not in an synagogue attending way, but in family gatherings, food and culture. Auster uses the novel form to address existential issues and questions of identity, space, language, and literature, creating his own distinctively postmodern (and critique of postmodernist) form in the process. Identity, Ferguson’s, being the key ingredient here.

It may take a while to read, but it is worth the effort. As with several other longlisted titles it is stylistically unusual, but do not let that put you off. Like going to France with a smattering of French in your memory, you get used to hearing it, and your ear becomes attuned – in this case you will find your “ear” and eye quickly pick up the familiar patterns.

There are constants in this book. Archie’s relationships with his parents, their parents and siblings remain the same, as does the date of his birth. On his father’s (Stanley Ferguson) side he has two uncles Lew (Louis) and Arnold (Aaron), whose wives are respectively Millie and Joan. Lew and Millie have two children, Andrew and Alice; Arnold and Joan have three, Jack, Francie and Ruth. His mother, Rose Adler has one sister Mildred, her parents Benjy and Emma live in New York. Ike and Fanny live in New Jersey and then there are inconstants!

But at this point is becomes complicated. In 1.1 Stanley, the youngest Ferguson is ambitious and driven, he starts with a leather goods store which eventually expands into the 3 Brothers Home Store, and sells everything from furniture to white goods. It would do better if the two elder brothers, layabouts both, were not constantly helping themselves to takings from the till; Lew is a gambler and has borrowed money off Stanley to cover mounting debts, however his gambling has become more serious, he then suddenly has a huge win, but far from repaying his brother, he buys mink for Millie and a Cadillac for himself and then throws a big champagne party, he eventually has a fatal crash in the Cadillac; the store is doing well until there is a huge warehouse burglary, which it eventually turns out is an inside job, and since he does not want to bring down his brother Arnold, Stanley endures the loss in silence, sending his brothers away; by 1.2 Stanley’s store has burnt to ashes, Ferguson is six and is learning to read, having broken his leg falling from tree; 1.3 fills in some of the more lurid details of the store fire. Archie’s cousin Andrew is killed in the Korean War, Lew goes off the rails and his debts become insurmountable, with his book-maker he conceives of an insurance scam that includes burning down the store, with fatal results and Lew ends up in prison; 1.4 finds Stanley with three prosperous stores, with two more due to be opened, he sees very little of his son Archie [who, by the way is known as Ferguson throughout]. Rose, his mother, is a professional studio photographer in all these sections, but in various guises. In 1.4 she spends quite a lot of time looking for a suitable studio/shop space which she eventually finds. 

The absolute inconstant is Ferguson’s aunt Mildred, in each section she is sometimes unmarried and does meet and marry, or remains a spinster. But each time she does marry it is to somebody completely different. And in different ways this affects Ferguson, especially the last husband, Donald Lomax a divorced man with a son, Noah.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 7

Arundhati Roy’s new novel, only her second since winning the Man Booker Prize in 1997, also starts in a graveyard. A short passage, written entirely in italics, describes the flying foxes leaving the Banyan tree at sundown; as the bats leave, the crows return to roost. The passage, though, is a lament for the loss of the sparrows, which have gone missing and the absence of the white-backed vultures which have been completely wiped out through human agency. Farmers fed their cattle Diclofenac, an aspirin to relax them and thereby increased their milk production, but which proved poisonously fatal to the vultures, whose natural appetite fed on the carcases left for them to clear up.

RoyThe Ministry of Utmost Happiness meanders through and around the lives of two women and three men, but with a cast of thousands whose lives touched theirs briefly, or from a great distance affected what they did in this convoluted, tragic history.

Set in India, but also passing through Kashmir and Pakistan, and spanning many years, its trajectory is the arc of history that includes Partition, the Bhopal chemical disaster, the Coco Cola scandal (about which the book says practically nothing but which gets a passing mention) and the various Kashmiri uprisings and suppressions to name but a few of the points of painful memory that mark the twentieth century in the Indian sub-continent.

Anjum leaves her home with nothing much more than a few household items and some carpets and rugs and set herself up in the graveyard where her family is buried. Like a tree she clings to the earth, suffering insults and casual cruelty, as a tree would – silently. Then an ancient imam becomes a regular visitor, and this calms things down and she is left in peace, thus begins the tale of the hijra.  Born Aftab, the fourth baby in a line of girls, he was the longed-for son of Jahanara Begum. It was only after the midwife left and she was exploring the new life she had produced that she saw to her sorrow that the boy also had girl-parts.

Terrified and saddened Jahanara Begum takes the baby to the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed asking that he teach her to love the baby, and it works.

For several years she was able to conceal this terrible fact from her husband, but eventually the truth came out and Aftab/Anjum left his birthplace and went to live in Khwabgah with other hijra. Eventually leaving them to live in the graveyard where she accommodates herself and slowly many other characters join her and their personal histories make up the other parts of this magnificently sprawling book.

The other principal woman in the tale arrives much later, but in many ways the story is as much about her as it is about Anjum. S. Tilottama, or Tilo is a petite and beautiful woman of dark skin, shunned therefore by many of her kind and rejected by her father. Her story really begins at university where she meets the three men who are part of her story, Musa, Naga and Biplab DasGupta. Each of these men love her and she loves one of them and their lives are intertwined with the history of India and Kashmir in the same way as ivy is intertwined with a tree.

Other characters, some appear once and others many times, circle around these two women and become part of the story. But the story is really that of India, because the political and racial upheavals of the twentieth century are the driving forces that throw these characters together, drag them apart, divide them and make them stronger. So that they survive to love, to meet and to share and in the end to understand.

At one point, Tilo writes to Musa saying that on her tombstone she wants written:

“How to tell a shattered story?

By slowly becoming everybody.

No

By slowly becoming everything.”

The history of India and Kashmir and Pakistan is soaked in blood, and so is this book, saturated in it, rivers of blood flow in the streets and sink into the fields but lives go on, love goes on, courage goes on and babies are born. In the interstices of history, people can and do find happiness.

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Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 6

Zadie Smith, you love her or you don’t. This is what I have found among readers that I talk to. Sadly, I am among those who don’t really care for her books and I feel it is only fair to come right out with this straightaway.

Swing TimeSpring Time is a novel about two girls, the narrator and Tracey. The two girls meet with their mothers in a cemetery, of all places. Their lives are inextricably linked from there on. Tracey and the narrator go to a dance class with Miss Isabel, piano played by Mr Booth. Tracey is a natural, the narrator has flat feet and only a limited sense of rhythm. The competition begins right there.

Tracey lives with her enormous mother and no obvious other parent; the narrator lives with both her parents, white father who is unambitious, conscientious and caring (apparently) and her mother is a Jamaican, resolute, selfish, ambitious and driven.

The area is North London, more or less. Don’t use this novel as an A-Z!

The lives of the two girls, all narrated in the first person, go from that first meeting through teenage and into adulthood, the predictable paths of these two and their parents looks set to play out according to script, but then this is a novel and it is by Zadie Smith.

I do think this is likely to be on the shortlist. It is clever, surprising and wilful. Will I be ecstatic if it wins? No. But I do admire Zadie Smith for mining a rich source of material from her locality and her people (not necessarily those related to her, as per Sebastian Barry, but those close by). I had a friend who was the priest at St Mary’s Willesden, and these people were in his congregation, everyone one of them.

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