Tess of the
Hans Joachim Schädlich:
Sire, ich eile
John Julius Norwich:
Through Arab Eyes
A Moment of War
The Travels of
James M. Cain:
Postman Always Rings Twice
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Peter Furtado (editor):
Alexander Pushkin (James E. Falen: translator):
Hawthorn & Child
Gods Without Men
Robert Penn Warren:
All the King's Men
Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
The Wooden World
The Casual Vacancy
The Sea, The Sea
Touching the Void
Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator
Waiting for Sunrise
Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Invention of the Jewish People
for a Heatwave
Robert Louis Stevenson:
This is another one of those melodramatic books by
Thomas Hardy. The Wikipedia article which I have linked to here gives a
detailed account of the plot of the story. Tess - whose real name we learn
is Teresa - is a milkmaid in the 19th century English countryside. But she
is apparently a direct descendent of some aristocrat in the time of the
Norman conquest of England.
Well, at a conservative guess, I suppose there would have
been at least 30 generations of her family between the year 1066 and 1870 or
so. Thus, assuming no duplications, she would have had more than 2 to the
30th power, that is more than 1,073,741,824 different ancestors in 1066. Of
course that is impossible, since there were fewer than a billion people in
the world then. But it shows that if we go back 30 generations then we are
almost certainly related to everybody else, and we are descended from almost
everybody who was alive in those days. For Tess's father, all of that didn't
count. He considered himself to be superior owing to the fact that he was
descended exclusively through the male line to that particular
ancestor. However it is surely the case that tracing one's ancestry back
through the male line involves a great deal of uncertainty. It is only now,
in an age when the biological father of a child can be determined by means
of DNA comparisons, that the male ancestry can be confirmed. Much more
reliable is the female line of inheritance. But in Victorian England only
the male line counted, and this despite the fact that the monarch was a
female. And so the theme of Hardy's story is this domination of society by
The poor, young, innocent Tess is sent off by her
impoverished family to ingratiate herself with a rich family which had
falsely assumed the name of d'Urberville. She is raped by the arrogant son
Alec. Or perhaps it is not really rape at all. Hardy was unable to give us
the details of this episode, since otherwise his book would never have been
published in Victorian England. In any event, Tess becomes pregnant, flees
back to her family, bears a sickly child which dies in infancy, and so
decides to carry on with life, having learned a lesson about the pitfalls of
female existence. She travels elsewhere to milk the cows there.
Another milker in this new phase of her life is Angel
Clare, a man with a strange name who is considered to be an angelic figure
by all the female milkers of the place, including Tess. His attraction is
increased by the circumstance that he is not just a simple farm laborer, but
rather he has money behind him, and he is only taking part in the milking in
order to learn the trade with the object of buying a large farm for himself
some time in the future. And so he selects Tess to be his wife and future
farmyard partner. But unfortunately, he turns out to be more of the devilish
than the angelic sort.
On their wedding night, before retiring to bed, they
decide to confess to one another their sins. Angel informs Tess that he is
not a virgin, and that he has dealt badly with a former girlfriend. He says
this with a laugh to show Tess that she is free to confess her sins as well.
And so she tells him that she is also no virgin. The horrible Angel then
storms out the door into the night, declaring that his life is now ruined,
and so forth. Tess sinks into the depths of remorse and depression.
Angel deserts Tess, going off to South America to spend a
year sulking and leaving Tess destitute. But during this time, Alec keeps
trying to approach Tess, telling her that he loves her completely. Yet she
rejects him again and again. I wish that Hardy had been able to tell us more
of the details of that first decisive encounter between Tess and Alec so
that we could judge exactly what claim he might have had on the affections
of Tess. Unfortunately though, she clings to the memory of the evil Angel,
but in the end, through family pressure, she reluctantly gets together with
Alec. In the final part of the book, Angel returns to reclaim Tess. And in a
fit of false emotion, Tess stabs Alec to death. She then runs off through
the woods and fields of rural England with Angel to escape the police. In
the middle of the night they happen to bump into Stonehenge, and Tess lies
down to sleep on a stone - the "sacrificial stone". The following morning,
policemen arrive from all directions and take her away to be hanged. In the
final scene of the book, the unfaithful Angel is pictured walking hand in
hand with Tess's young sister, up a hill and disappearing into the bushes
where, we imagine, the next generation of the family is about to be created.
But before this, they look down upon the town containing the prison where
poor Tess is being held. A black flag is raised on the tower of the prison
to denote the fact that Tess has just now died on the gallows.
So what are we to make of such a brutal story as this?
According to the Wikipedia article, various students of literature have
imagined that Tess is supposed to symbolize certain mythical figures, or
characters. For example, she is the Goddess of Nature and Fertility, whose
praises were sung by the ancient Lucretius, sacrificed to the brutality of
the Mechanical Age. Or something. But surely it is simpler to just say that
much of that which we associate with "Victorian morality" was evil, and
thankfully this novel of Thomas Hardy may have contributed towards
overcoming such evils.
If you take part in a course conducted by one of
the famous contemporary professors of the baroque flute then you will soon
discover that much of the discussion concerns Frederick
the Great, and his music master, Johann
Joachim Quantz. This is due to the fact that in 1752 Quantz published
his famous treatise "Versuch
einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen". There was a
translation into English, published in 1780 in London, a scanned version of
which can be downloaded in a rather large pdf file here.
In addition, there is the famous
portrait of Frederick, playing his flute, accompanied by his musicians
- in particular Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach on the harpsichord, and Quantz
standing off to the right in a posture of dignified humility. This picture
cannot lay much claim to authenticity since it was painted in 1850-52, that
is a century after the fact. Nevertheless, the posture of the king is
thought to represent an excellent example which the modern student of the
flute is encouraged to follow. But to be quite honest, when I look at the
king's legs in this picture it seems to me that his bent-knee posture would
be more suitable to horse riding than to flute playing. The
only portrait which was actually painted from life shows a much more
modest king. It is difficult to imagine him riding in the midst of his
armies, in the thick of the action, exposing himself to danger. And I can
imagine that when playing the flute in his palace at Sanssouci he did not
assume the dominating pose represented in that 19th century portrait. After
all, Quantz was the greatest flutist of the baroque period, which was the
time when the greatest music for the flute was composed. Every afternoon -
at least when he was at home in Sanssouci and not in the middle of a
military campaign - he played privately with his musicians and with Quantz.
What a wonderful experience it must have been for him, a mere amateur, to be
able to play along with such people whenever he wished. Such a situation,
such luxury, would be unimaginable today, even for the richest people in the
world. And every afternoon he would be able to intimately experience the
huge gulf between his own modest musical abilities and those of his
musicians. For this reason he only played privately, at most allowing only a
few invited guests. There is a famous
description of such a concert by the Englishman Charles
This book, whose title could be translated as "Shadow
over Sanssouci", is a kind of historical novel and detective story. It is
really absurdly fanciful, but still it was fun to read. The idea of the
story is that agents of Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria and enemy of
Frederick, were smuggling information out of Potsdam, Frederick's base near
Berlin, using coded messages.
In those days, people used the system of "autokey
ciphers". The weakness of such a system was that an initial word, or
sequence of letters, must be sent in order to decipher the message. One
ingenious idea, developed by Duke
August the Younger of Brunswick-Lüneburg, was to encode this initial
word within a piece of music which people would simply play without
suspecting that it had anything to do with espionage. And so the story
develops, with Quantz becoming involved in complicated intrigues, falsely
accused of indulging in such things. The
famous episode, where the great Johann Sebastian Bach visits Sanssouci
and is given the complicated King's Theme, where he tries to improvise a six
part fugue, plays a big role in the story. But this becomes rather
We in the modern world consider J.S. Bach to be the
greatest musician who ever lived, towering above his contemporaries, and
indeed above everything that came subsequently. The Musical Offering, the
Christmas Oratorium, the Mass in B minor, the Sonata in E major - BWV 1035.
We perceive this music as being something of almost transcendental depth and
beauty. But for Frederick and for almost all musicians and commentators on
music in the 18th century, Johann Sebastian Bach was at most a relatively
obscure musician whose mistake it was to write in an overly complicated
The story of this book was interesting as far as it
describes the military atmosphere of Potsdam under Frederick the Great. As
with East Germany under the communists, Potsdam was surrounded by a high
wall whose function was not to keep an attacking army away. Rather its
function was to keep the soldiers - and I suppose many of the other people
as well - from escaping to the outside world. And so the town must have been
like a prison with the soldiers on guard constantly shouting at each other
and at other people on the street. Walking the streets at night was illegal;
anyone caught out would be thrown into jail. The soldiers would all assemble
at some unearthly hour in the morning for their drill, with loud shouts,
drums, pipes, church bells. Waking the whole town. How could Quantz have put
up with it? He stayed in Potsdam from the time Frederick became king in 1741
until his own death in 1773.
This was another Christmas present concerning
Frederick the Great. It is a short book, describing the messy business of
the relations between the French philosopher Voltaire and the Prussian King.
Although it is called a "novelle", it consists for the most part of
quotations from the letters of the two characters, with some dialogue thrown
I hadn't really thought very much about Voltaire before.
The whole idea of "philosophy" in the abstract strikes me as nothing but a
great waste of time. I do remember reading Voltaire's "J'accuse" years ago.
That certainly was not abstract philosophy. And reading through this book, I
see that Voltaire was far removed from the somewhat hopeless characters who
seem to inhabit the philosophy faculties of today's universities. He became
rich through various shady deals, swindling people out of their money. And
also Frederick, though playing the role of a fine French gentleman, was in
fact a brutal and successful player in the game of warfare.
At first, far apart, they wrote each other flowery
letters of mutual admiration. Voltaire then took up residence in Frederick's
palace at Sanssuci in 1750, and soon they became disgusted with one another.
Voltaire fled to Switzerland, since hardly any other country in Europe would
by John Julius Norwich
For the last thirty years or more I have been
accumulating these books which are produced by the Folio Society. In order
to become a "member", you simply have to order at least four of their books.
The books really are very nicely made: high quality paper, properly bound,
interesting illustrations. Then if, next year, you can't be bothered to
continue being a member, there is literally nothing to do. Just don't order
a further four books. That's the end of it. And if the year after that you
think that they have come up with some interesting new books, then you can
again order four books and again become a "member" for that year.
Somehow I always seem to think that there are still lots
of interesting things, and so I eventually order my quota of new books each
year. But in order to encourage people to continue being "members", the
Folio Society offers various extra books, or sets of books for "free" if you
renew your membership. Thus, in fact, rather than getting only four books,
you get 7 or 8 for the price of 4. Looking at my invoice for this year, I
see that it has cost me £134.47 this time. This is really hardly more than
the cost of somewhat better quality paperbacks which are still just glued
together on the back so that they break apart if you try to lay them out
flat on the table.
Well, of the 10 or so different sets offered as possible
free books this year, I thought this history of Byzantium might be
interesting. A set of three volumes of about 400 pages each. Years ago I did
read through all of Gibbon's famous work: "The History of the Decline and
Fall of the Roman Empire", which was first published in the 18th century. I
enjoyed that despite its length - I suppose many thousands of pages. Lots of
footnotes. But Edward Gibbon had a wonderful sense of humor so that all this
heavy stuff often produced a smile. Gibbon relied on various classical
sources which he must have read in the original Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. He
often gives us his opinion of the reliability, or lack of it, of those
sources. Of course the whole story is one of a huge succession of emperors,
kings, and what have you, being incredibly corrupt, brutal, evil. These are
the things that were of interest to the chroniclers back then. But Gibbon
also took the trouble to expand his work with the occasional chapter
describing things which were of interest to the common people back then. How
did the tax system work? What was life like on a large estate? What were the
origins of Islam, and what motivated the Arabs in their efforts to take over
Gibbon's work was so vast that after finishing it, I am
sure that I only had a vague recollection of the countless emperors who
assassinated one another down through the ages, and the circumstances of
their horrible deaths. So when seeing that the Folio Society had now come
out with a new set of books on Byzantium, I thought that it would be
interesting. After all, modern scholarship has moved on from the style of
Gibbon in the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century. People are no longer
simply interested in the tedious list of emperors and their hideous deeds.
What was life really like during those thousand years that the Byzantine
So after my package of new books arrived a week or two
ago, I started off on volume 1 of this history of Byzantium. I have now
reached page 375, and I am extremely disappointed! Where is the modern
scholarship? This book does nothing more than repeat the enumeration of the
various emperors and their deeds, covering the same ground that Gibbon
covered 250 years ago. He often quotes Gibbon. In fact there is much less
than Gibbon. The author, John Julius Norwich, far from giving us new
scholarship, simply leaves out everything which is not concerned with those
tedious emperors. For example, he skips over the rise of Islam with a few
ignorant remarks. What a disappointment! These books are hardly worth the
(high quality) paper they are printed on. What has become of the Folio
Society? Why are they printing such rubbish in such beautifully made books?
I should have looked for a review such
as this before ordering this set.
Thinking about it, I googled the name of the author and
found this page
in the Wikipedia. So we see that John Julius Norwich is, in fact, "Viscount
Norwich", an English aristocrat. He is not a historian. Instead he was a
diplomat, and then a TV and radio personality. He hosted the humorous radio
quiz program "My Word!" for four years. But also he presented lots of those
BBC television documentaries. So he must be a good talker. An amateur
historian. Upper Class British accent. Snobby.
I think it would be a shame if the Folio Society became
closely attached to these BBC types. The reputation of the BBC has suffered
in recent years through a number of scandals. Although I do keep clicking
into the BBC website for a quick view of the news, I often read their
articles with a great deal of skepticism.
I wasn't able to finish this one either. It was too
long! I did get to page 350 or so of this paperback edition, which was about
half way through to the end of the thing. But the printing is small, on
small sheets of cheap paper so that the text curves around into the glued
back of the book, making me try to open it further to get a better view,
with the danger of cracking the glue on the back. And so the small, curved
printing was a strain on the eyes. Somebody once told me that the cost of
producing these paperbacks is mainly determined by the cost of buying the
paper. All the rest is done automatically with big paperback-making machines
which churn them out in huge numbers. So obviously the publishers decided to
compensate for the huge number of pages in this book by making them as small
If it was a great book, then maybe I could have put up
with all this, but, despite the fact that it was the winner of the Booker
Prize a couple of years ago, I just got bored with it. It is another one of
these Henry the Eighth sagas. This time centered on the figure of Thomas
Cromwell who, of course, dominated the politics of England back then. The
story starts off with the young Thomas being beaten half to death, lying on
the ground, kicked half-unconscious by his brutal father, who was a
blacksmith. This scene is described in a breathless style, with dialogue
which perhaps takes place, or perhaps is imagined. A disjointed style,
suggesting helpless hysteria. The reader is overwhelmed with incoherent
bursts of thought, jumping back and forth. I suppose the idea of the author
was to convey the feeling that people in those days were caught up in this
hysteria, thus making calm, sensible thought impossible. But then this is
contradicted by the fact that the hero of the book, Thomas Cromwell, was the
master of many different languages, the intricacies of law, and apparently
he had also found the time and the peace of mind to memorize the entire New
Testament of the bible. (This encompasses 230 closely printed pages with
tiny type in the copy of the Bible which I bought, out of curiosity, from
the Australian Bible Society for less than the cost of the high quality -
but extremely thin - paper it is printed on, almost 40 years ago.) But
still, the author, Hilary Mantel goes on and on in this hectic style for
page after page, developing the story.
The problem with an historical novel such as this is that
we know how things turn out. You just need to look it up in the Wikipedia,
which I have linked to above. So we see that Thomas Cromwell survived until
the year 1540, when he was 55 years old. His mistake at that stage was to
get Henry the Eighth hooked up with Anne of Cleves. In those days, without
all this Internet stuff, it was difficult for Henry to get a good picture of
his prospective wives without seeing them in the flesh. Unfortunately Anne
of Cleves was over in Germany or something, and so he had the painter Hans
Holbein the Younger sent over to paint
her portrait. She doesn't strike me as being so very attractive there,
but apparently she was much less attractive in reality. Thus Henry didn't
consummate the marriage, and in order to express his anger, he had Thomas
Cromwell executed. I suppose the book must end on page 700 or something with
a firework of disjointed, hysterical verbiage, describing this situation.
At the point where I gave up, Henry had gotten rid of
poor old Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell had been elevated to high office. But
the whole business with Ann Boleyn was still in limbo. According to the
story of the book, although Henry had already coupled with Ann's
older sister Mary - apparently producing a number of offspring, even
of the male variety - Henry decided to have a go at Ann as well. But she was
holding out, telling him: NO SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE!, getting him into a state
of nervous anticipation. Well, OK. But somehow, this seems to me to be a
different story than was told in countless other of these books and films.
And from the
portraits, it seems to me that neither Ann, nor her sister Mary were
particularly beautiful women. The next wife of Henry, Jane
Seymour, was downright ugly.
As I think I wrote somewhere here a few years ago, the
most striking thing to see if you take the tour through the Tower of London
is the armor
of Henry the Eighth. It's incredibly massive. He must have been a
tremendously fat man. I imagine he had trouble standing up, supporting all
his layers of fat together with the heavy armor. And then sticking out
between the legs of the armor is a huge, bulbous projection for holding
Henry's reproductive organ. What did people think in those days? Could it be
that these ugly women Henry married were the only ones who were not revolted
by such displays?
And in any case, the whole story of Henry the Eighth
seems to me to be absurd. After all, the great tradition - from the Emperor
Constantine, down through the ages - was that kings killed off all the male
members of their families in order not to be killed by them instead. Why did
Henry, who apparently had numbers of illegitimate male offspring, become so
obsessed with the idea of having an official, church endorsed, male heir?
Surely this obsession of his, apparently a result of some sort of strange
religious fanaticism, or perhaps it was his increasing madness, thought by
some to be due to syphilis, has nothing at all to do with some sort of
imaginary strategy of Ann Boleyn, described in this book. In fact the book
seemed to me to become more and more absurd, the further I read. And so I
didn't finish it. But I know how the story ends anyway.
When George W. Bush began his wars of terrorism
over 10 years ago, he referred to it as being some kind of "crusade". In the
Introduction to this book it is said that George W. Bush's guide to religion
was Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, who devoted his life to a
television "Crusade for Christ". Perhaps Billy Graham imagined that his
"crusade" was a fight against immoral behavior in modern society - or
something. But Franklin Graham was quite clear about these things. He said
that the God of Islam is different from the God of Christ. According to him,
Islam is "a very evil and wicked religion".
One suspects that neither George W. Bush nor Franklin
Graham were familiar with the history of the crusades. For example, Edward
Gibbon devotes a couple of chapters to this theme. And I've read a number of
other books on the subject. There have also been television documentaries.
The impression one gets is of unimaginable hardships, slaughter, blood
flowing everywhere. Somehow those crusaders seemed to think that Jerusalem
was paradise, heaven. And in order to get there and to possess it, even the
worst evils were acceptable. When the crusaders entered Jerusalem in 1099
they rampaged through the place, killing or enslaving everybody, including
the Christians and Jews who happened to be living there. They destroyed much
of the city, grabbing anything of value. It was one of the worst examples of
senseless destruction and cruelty that history has to offer.
Contrast this with the behavior of the caliph Umar,
who took Jerusalem from the Byzantines during the initial stages of Islamic
expansion in the year 638. He told the people that he would respect their
lives and property. Then he asked the Christian patriarch to take him on a
tour of the Christian holy places. When the time for Islamic prayer came, he
happened to be in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The patriarch invited
him to pray right there, but he demurred, saying that if he did so, then his
followers might try to convert the church into a mosque to celebrate the
event. Therefore he went outside to pray, and indeed, the "Mosque of Umar"
was erected on that spot. Similarly, when Saladin
eventually conquered the Frankish army and entered Jerusalem in 1187, he
respected the life and property of the inhabitants and their freedom to go
about their various religions.
It is only after reading this book, which relies on
various contemporary Arab chroniclers, that the history of the crusades
became a coherent whole for me. After all, if a country is being attacked by
invaders from some distant lands, then the natives of that country
experience the whole thing in its entirety, while the invaders only
experience themselves and the violence they commit.
The situation at the time of the initial wave of
crusaders was that the Middle East was ruled by the Seljuk
Turks. Each town had its own little king, and these kings were all
related to one another. Rather than displaying brotherly love, they were at
each others throats, trying to kill one another, assembling small armies to
try and invade and capture the neighboring town. Thus when the crusaders
first appeared they were thought to be nothing more than a distraction from
the serious business of fighting the neighbors. Various of the rulers allied
themselves with the crusaders in order to help them in their respective
battles. But as wave after wave of Frankish invaders arrived, they were able
to establish a colony named "Outremer"
- which can be translated as "overseas" in Medieval French - which lasted
for about a hundred years.
The Arab chroniclers describe with revulsion the Frankish
settlers. Their total lack of hygiene. Their illiterate ignorance. Their
cruel and arbitrary system of justice. It must have been somewhat like the
movie Mad Max. If two of the settlers came into conflict with one another
then they were placed in a ring to fight to the death. Justice was
determined by the sword. But gradually, after establishing themselves in
Outremer, the people became more civilized and they often joined forces with
the Arabs in fighting off the new waves of primitive, destructive crusaders
coming from France. In fact it is a plausible thesis that the civilizing
influence of the peoples of the Middle East led to the renaissance in Italy,
and thus to the awakening of Europe from the barbaric Middle Ages.
Laurie Lee wrote a trilogy of books describing the
things he did as a young man. The three books were published together under
the title "Red Sky at Sunrise" which I found in the library. I had already
read the first two of the books years ago. This one describes his adventure
during the Spanish Civil War.
The second book of the trilogy was "As I Walked Out One
Midsummer Morning". He leaves home in the rural England of the 1930s
depression, penniless, supporting himself by playing his violin on street
corners. After working for a time as a laborer, he gathered his pennies
together and bought a ticket to Spain, a country whose language he didn't
speak. And so he walked about in Spain, playing his music on the streets and
in the bars, ending up on the Costa del Sol and the start of the Civil War.
At the end of that book, a British gunboat appeared off the beach and Laurie
Lee was taken aboard and returned to England. But there life seemed to him
to be pointless so he decided to join the International Brigade and fight in
the war on the Republican side against the Spanish Fascists under Franco.
The second book of the trilogy thus ends with the author climbing across the
Pyrenees in the snows of winter, nearly freezing to death, entering Spain.
The present book takes up the story from there. He is
guided down from the mountains and arrives shivering and wet in a primitive
farmhouse where he sits near the fire, with the locals staring at him. They
give him something to eat and he sleeps overnight. The next day he is carted
away to a town where he is accused of being a spy, is thrown into a small,
cold room in a cellar, and forgotten for a couple of days. An interrogator
eventually appears, and although he is friendly, still he has Laurie Lee
taken to a small hole in the ground with a locked trap-door. So the author
spends the next two weeks in total darkness, hardly able to move. Another
young man is also thrown into the hole. He is unable to see him, but at
least his body heat provides some warmth in this cold winter. The young man
was trying to escape from the war by climbing over the mountains, out into
France. A deserter. After a week or so he is pulled out of the hole, and
soon afterwards Laurie Lee hears the explosion of a gun. The execution.
Obviously this was not the best way to go about joining
the International Brigade! Ernest Hemingway, and all those other literary
types who were looking for the high adventure of war, were more sensible
than Laurie Lee. The proper way to take part in that adventure was to go
down to the local offices of the Communist Party - in London, or New York,
or Moscow, or wherever else you were coming from - and officially enlist.
Then you were officially shipped over to Spain, welcomed by the officials of
the Spanish Communist Party, and sent into battle, with a high probability
of being killed. I suppose Ernest Hemingway must have told them that he was
a pacifist, despite all appearances to the contrary, since he was given the
job of driving ambulances.
Eventually Laurie Lee was pulled out of the dark hole,
expecting to meet his fate. But for some reason he was not shot; instead was
shipped along to Figueres, where a ragged bunch of men who had joined up officially
were gathering. After days of inactivity they were shipped further down the
coast to Tarragona. The whole country was devastated. It was cold. The
primitive, creaking train took hours and hours to get almost nowhere.
Eventually, exhausted, they arrived. A primitive, ragged brass band welcomed
them at the station and they were marched to their barracks. But before
entering, they had to stand in the cold, in formation, at attention. Laurie
Lee's name was called out and he was taken away for further interrogation
while the others went to the barrack. More days in a small, cold cell. It
was decided to go ahead and shoot him. But at the last moment he was
recognized by somebody, and so his life was spared - for the time being at
least. More weeks of doing nothing. An intimate encounter with a young
teenaged girl he had met before. Then he was himself assigned to the secret
police squadron of the International Brigade. Looking for traitors. A
desolate truck ride to Madrid, and a short-wave radio broadcast to America
where he played his violin. Suddenly he was shipped off to the front with
another young fellow who had become caught up in this mess. They were dumped
in a barn. The nearby town was being bombarded with all the might of Fascist
Europe. His companion was killed. He stumbled away in the cold slush and
snow, hiding for days in a covered ditch with a small group of Republican
soldiers. Suddenly enemy soldiers appeared. A quick, brutal scuffle. He had
killed a man, and other dead and wounded lay about. He was returned to
Tarragona, full of remorse. Everything was hopeless. The Cause was lost. He
was told that he would be sent back to England where he could write
propaganda for the Cause, thus contributing more than he was doing here. A
cold, dangerous nighttime ride in a truck to Barcelona. He was told that the
best thing would be to present himself at the police station to obtain his
exit papers. But the police simply put him into a cell in a big city prison
and forgot him. Cold. No food. A nun appeared each day to give him a thin
sandwich. Nothing more. Weeks of this. Nothing. Would he spend the rest of
his life like this? Forgotten in a Spanish prison? Suddenly a man appeared,
unlocked the door to the cell and led him out. By chance, one of the bigwigs
of the English Communist Party happened to be visiting Barcelona and he had
had dinner with the Chief of Police who happened to mention that they were
holding an Englishman in the prison. And so he was sent by train over the
border into France, back into the real world, and the next day he was back
in cold, drizzling London.
A depressing story which I have read on a cold, dark,
gray, winter's day. I am turning up the heating in the house. Maybe I'll
light a nice warm fire in the fireplace. What was the moral of the story?
Avoid lost causes!
Tim Mackintosh-Smith didn't write this. Instead he
edited and translated the book of Ibn Battutah, who was undoubtedly the
greatest traveler of the late middle ages. Battutah's travels took place in
the years 1325-1354. It is a natural idea to compare him with Marco Polo,
who traveled during the period 1271-1295. We can compare the route
of Marco Polo to that of Ibn Battutah, shown in three maps at the
bottom of this page.
We see that Battutah covered about three times the distance of Marco Polo.
(But of course Marco Polo claimed to have been employed as an envoy of the
Emperor of China for many years, presumably involving much travel about
China, which he didn't include in his memoirs.) Battutah describes clearly
the towns along his route, allowing the modern geographer to follow the
travels with greater accuracy than is the case with Marco Polo. And of
course the great difference between those two figures is that Battutah
followed the Islamic religion, while Polo was a Christian.
Back in those days, Islam covered a far greater region of
the earth than did Christianity. And thus Marco Polo was, of necessity, much
more open-minded in his observations than was Ibn Battutah, who was able to
travel for such vast distances almost exclusively in lands where Islam was
the dominant element of society. It was only during a short visit to
Constantinople, and a slightly more extended visit to China, that he
ventured into the lands of the "infidel". On both occasions he felt very
uncomfortable and left as quickly as possible. For a time he had high office
under the Emperor of India. But he describes various battles against the
infidels there, so obviously the Islamic forces, while having conquered
India, hadn't established a position of true dominance.
It wasn't particularly clear to me what this Ibn Battutah
was doing during all these travels. He continually tells us that this or
that person, or even whole groups of people, have learned the entire text of
the Qur'an by heart. A couple of years ago, out of curiosity, I did get a
copy of the book (in English, of course). It is not printed on ultra-thin
paper, as is my copy of the King James Bible. Thus it is 5 cm. thick and
weighs in at 1.7 kg. I certainly cannot claim to have read through the whole
thing, but at least I can appreciate the prodigious effort involved in
accomplishing such a feat of memorization. And so, as Ibn Battutah travels
from town to town in his travels, he goes from Mosque to Mosque and
describes one person after another either reciting or reading out of the
But how did he finance all of his travels if he was
totally preoccupied with Mosques and readings of the Qur'an? At the start,
in the year 1325, he seems to set off from his home town of Tangier on the
pilgrimage to Mecca with only very modest financial means. And yet when he
really gets going, on the way to India, he tells us about all the slave
girls he has gathered about himself, all of his camels, horses and what have
you, male slaves, bags of golden dinars, and so forth. How has he gotten so
After reading the book, it seems to me that he must have
established himself as an Islamic scholar, and thus, owing to the fact that
Islamic law is based on reading and interpreting the Qur'an, he must have
become recognized as a famous lawyer, or judge. After all, there is always
lots of money in the law, isn't there? Rich people try to get their way by
throwing their money at rapacious lawyers. But the thing that bothered me
was how Ibn Battutah goes on and on about his high moral principles, and how
he passes judgement on other people. Yet his own life seems to have been
lived in a state of moral depravity.
After all, the (undoubtedly warped) impression we have is
that Islamic law is primarily concerned with the sanctity of marriage
(unfaithful spouses are to be stoned to death!) and of property (thieves
have their hands chopped off!). Yet Ibn Battutah tells us how pleasant it is
to travel for weeks in a caravan in your own wagon, enclosed in a gauze-like
covering, perhaps with slits in it so you can see what is happening outside,
while inside you are protected in your privacy. He tells us that while
hiding behind these coverings he has about him numbers of his own personal
slave girls accompanying him in the wagon. Occasionally he also tells us
that the products of his debaucheries do not survive their births. We
surmise that the majority are dumped into orphanages, or whatever. He also
accumulates various wives, who are not slave girls, but then has no trouble
getting rid of them when he travels onward. He doesn't give us his legal
opinion on the validity of such practices in Islamic law, but in particular
he does go on at length about the delights of the wives and slave girls
which he enjoyed during his stay in the Maldives. As far as thievery is
concerned, perhaps most people would agree that the legal profession is, in
itself, a kind of thievery. But Ibn Battutah often tells us about the huge
"debts" he accumulates which may, or may not have been paid off by the
respective king or emperor he happened to be serving at various stages of
So I am afraid that the impression I gained was that the
famous traveler was simply an unpleasant, self-righteous hypocrite. This
book served to reinforce the all too common - but hopefully false - view
that many Europeans have of Islam. Namely that it is a system of corruption
dominated by men, where women are forced to suffer.
Tough, 1930s talk in abbreviated sentences. It's a
short little story in the style of Raymond Chandler. Yet Chandler, who was
really rather prudish, hated the author. If, as it is sometimes said,
American society is characterized by sex and violence, then Chandler
concentrated exclusively on the violent side of life. In this book the hero
- or rather the protagonist, Frank Chambers - is really a sentimental soul.
He falls madly in love with Cora, the wife of Nick, the owner of a gas
station in a suburb of LA.
So the problem is to get rid of Nick. We are told that
although he is a nice guy, extremely friendly with Frank, still Nick is an
unpleasant, greasy immigrant from Greece. Frank and Cora make a bit of a
mess of the murder. Although I didn't see the 1981 movie, staring Jack
Nicholson, I can hardly imagine that it reflects the calm, clear mood of the
book. Instead we would like Lieutenant Columbo to appear and solve the crime
for us. Unfortunately, the LA of the 1930s was not Lieutenant Columbo's LA
of 50 years later. The DA is a cynical man, setting up Frank against Cora.
But in a twist of the plot, Frank engages an even smarter lawyer who twists
justice into nonsense. Frank and Cora are free. Yet things do not turn out
happily. Cora dies in a real accident, but Frank is this time falsely framed
for murder, and in the last sentence of the book, Frank asks the reader to
send prayers that after he is hanged he will rejoin his beloved Cora in the
I am astonished that such a sentimental story as this
caused such a scandal in the USA back in the 30s. A false prudery.
In a nutshell, the story is that a "beautiful"
young man, Dorian Gray, has his picture painted by an artist in Victorian
London. He then leads a life of degenerate debauchery. The usual result of
such a life is that the body also becomes degenerate, turning beauty into
ugliness. But in the story, Dorian Gray remains young and beautiful while
his portrait, which he hides up in the attic of his London mansion,
progressively changes, gradually portraying an ugly, debauched person. At
the end of the story he can no longer stand looking at the horrible
portrait, and so he takes a knife, slicing it to pieces. But at that
instant, accompanied by loud screams, the portrait returns to its initial,
beautiful, pristine state, and Dorian Gray is transformed into an ugly,
repulsive old man.
This is a kind of Gothic horror story. Also rather like
Robert Louis Stevenson's "Doctor Jeckell and Mister Hyde". Stevenson was
writing during the Victorian period so that he was only able to describe in
very vague, indirect terms the things which Mr. Hyde was supposed to be
doing. Similarly Oscar Wilde, writing in 1890, leaves much to the reader's
imagination. The only things we are actually told are:
Well, surely Point 1 was just par for the course in
cynical, Victorian London. As far as Point 2 is concerned, murder is indeed
illegal, but it is hardly to be compared with the example of Jack the
Ripper, as far as horror is concerned. For the rest, Oscar Wilde goes on for
page after tedious page in the middle of the book, quoting numerous examples
in antiquity, or in classical literature, showing that people do not
normally live according to the straight-laced, rigid moral framework of
Victorian England. Fair enough. - And how banal -
- Dorian Gray, a member of the "high society" of London, takes a fancy
to a Shakespearean actress, leading her to believe that he will marry
her. But following a bad acting performance on her part, he breaks off
the relationship. Subsequently she commits suicide.
- He invites the artist who painted his portrait up to the attic to view
what is happening. On a sudden impulse, and out of disgust, he murders
Of course we all know that Oscar Wilde was homosexual;
that this was illegal in Victorian England; and that he was subsequently
imprisoned for his "crime". These days homosexuality is certainly no longer
illegal. For example the Mayor of Berlin is homosexual, and he famously said
that that is "good so". And the Foreign Minister of Germany is also
homosexual. A year or two ago he married his partner.
So the present book is concerned with Oscar Wilde coming
to terms with the beauty of a young man in Victorian England, and the fact
that in the London of those days, such people as he and his boyfriends were
forced into an atmosphere of degenerate dissipation. But beyond that, I
found the book to be unpleasant owing to the incessantly cynical dialogue
which, I suppose, reflects the true situation of life as he found it in the
"high society" of London back in those days. A constant, false banter; every
sentence a joke.
After all, the mega-rich of Victorian England owed their
inherited riches to the torment of slaves in the West Indies, or to the
exploitation of India, or peasants in the coal mines of Northern England.
The evil which was the basis of those riches exceeded in all measure
anything which Dorian Gray was able to achieve.
Imagine what life must have been like for those people:
Lord so and so, or Lady whatever. Or the Duke, Dutchess of something
ridiculous. They were ugly people, physically ugly, made ugly by the
depravity of their riches. Yet, as in the book, they had to constantly visit
one another, telling one another how beautiful they were in convoluted,
cynical jokes. It is no wonder that this led many of these people into a
life of depraved degeneration.
This book consists of 28 short chapters,
representing 28 different nations. Each of these chapters is a attempt by a
contemporary historian of the respective nation to give a history of that
nation in just 10 or 12 pages - with plenty of space left over for 6 or 8
photos, or other illustrations, in each chapter. An interesting exercise.
But I see that Europe is over-represented with 12 chapters out of the 28. Or
14 if one is to argue (as their historians more or less do) that Russia and
Turkey are also European. Africa is totally under-represented. Only Ghana
gets a chapter in this book. On the other hand, North America is totally
represented since all three nations: Canada, USA, and Mexico are included.
And of course Australia, as a continent, is totally represented, since there
is a chapter for Australia.
Still, it seems to me to be a bit strange to have so many
chapters devoted to the chaos here in Europe. Perhaps most people would say
that the history of Europe is well-known. You can just read about it in all
the countless history books which have been published down through the ages.
And yet the striking thing when reading this book is that each of the 12
European historians tells a completely different story. It is astonishing
how little common ground there is in the various national myths of Europe.
And I suppose that if historians of some of the omitted nations, such as
Switzerland, Serbia, Denmark, and so forth, were to be allowed to have their
says, then we would have a whole further flock of incompatible myths. Each
of these nations has its own separate language, and so it would seem that
history becomes lost - or at least distorted beyond all recognition - in the
translation from one language to another.
The chapter on the United States, written by Peter Onuf,
was interesting. As he shows, the myth of the United States is that it is
supposed to be beyond history. History was concerned with all those
European problems. But the USA is the "new world", where people are free to
be themselves, having transcended history. Unfortunately though, history has
a nasty habit of cropping up at awkward times, imposing itself upon people
who want nothing to do with it. This gives us an explanation of why the USA
seems to be continually invading one country after another, like a person
with a can of insecticide, trying to spray away an irritating fly, but in
this case trying to keep history at bay.
I was surprised to read that India has almost no written
ancient history. It seems that the Indians were more interested in poetry.
But in contrast with this, China has a very ancient and complete historical
record. The chapter on Turkey concludes with a quotation from another book
about Turkey, saying "this book is about a people who do not exist".
Onegin, translated by James E. Falen
For we non-Russians, I suppose the story of Eugene Onegin
is best known through Tchaikovsky's opera. So I have linked here to the
synopsis of the story in the website of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
But it seems that in Russia, Pushkin has the same sort of status as does
Shakespeare (or at least the works which were published under the name
"Shakespeare") in the English speaking world.
This book is a kind of novel with a simple Russian love
story. It was written in verse. The whole thing consists of 366 stanzas,
each of which (with a couple of exceptions) being a poem of 14 lines. The
rhyming scheme for each of these stanzas can be represented by the sequence
"ababccddeffegg". In addition, the lines are "feminine" and "masculine"
according to the scheme "fmfmffmmfmmfmm". A feminine line is such that the
next to last syllable is stressed, while for a masculine line, the last
syllable is stressed. Then finally the meter is iambic
tetrameter. Whew! Complicated, isn't it?
I'm not really a fan of poetry, but I am impressed by the
fact that these poets are able to express comprehensible thoughts within
such a rigid framework. On the other hand, I find the kind of poetry which
isn't really poetry - since it doesn't follow all these rules - to be often
much more profound. For example the poems of T. S. Eliot.
Since Russian is incomprehensible to me, and I saw that
this translation was being offered by the Folio Society, I thought it might
be interesting to read it. According to the Introduction, Pushkin took years
to write the whole thing, publishing it in serial form between 1825 and
1832. It must have been a prodigious effort for him to have been able to
find combinations of words fitting into his scheme and yet still giving
something which was not simply a monstrosity. And thus it is for me
difficult to understand how this James E. Falen could have gone to the
trouble of reproducing the story in the same number of stanzas, with the
identical rhyming scheme, meter, and so forth, where each stanza
approximates in meaning the original of Pushkin, and yet having it in the
English language. And indeed, the story in this translation can be read
reasonably smoothly. So I must take my hat off to him! Congratulations on a
job well done.
But whereas Pushkin has been rewarded for his tremendous
feat of rhyming and rhythm with everlasting fame and adoration, the
translator who has put an equal measure of effort into his work remains
This is a book about football. Real football, not the
American game which is derived from Rugby and in which only occasionally
does any player actually touch the "ball" (or rather the - more or less -
ellipsoid) with his foot. When I was growing up in the United States I did
have an average sort of knowledge of professional baseball, basketball and
American "foot"ball. But in school I hated those team sports and only took
part with the greatest reluctance. In those days I was one of the few people
going out alone for cross-country runs along the roads. I can recall the
occasional car stopping to tell me that it was crazy to run like that.
Then in Australia I tried playing tennis, hardly becoming
very good at it. But I became fascinated with watching cricket. Only once or
twice did I try playing it with some other students. A couple of times I
watched an international test match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The speed
and aggression of the bowling is breathtaking. And the strategy changes over
time as the game develops from one day to the next. But now I have been
living in Europe for the last 37 years, and so it is a natural thing to look
This book, "Fever Pitch" is apparently the true story of
Nick Hornby's obsession with football, and in particular with his being a
fanatical fan of Arsenal
- the North London club. As you can see from the link, Arsenal has had a
very successful history, never dropping out of the First Division. But just
now, as I am writing this on a Wednesday afternoon, I am looking forward to
watching the Champions League match between Bayern Munich and Arsenal which
is due to take place this evening on television. The first leg was a couple
of weeks ago in London, and Bayern demolished Arsenal with a 3-1 victory. So
everybody expects Bayern to cruise comfortably into the quarter finals in
tonight's match in Munich.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s I often went to the
football stadium here to watch the local team, Armenia Bielefeld. Back then
they were playing near the bottom of the first division of German football.
(But still, one very memorable weekend, Bielefeld actually beat Bayern
Munich 4-0 in Munich!) A couple of us would often stand on the terraces
along with the hard-core fans. A great atmosphere. People were very
friendly. I remember one match at the end of the season when Hamburg - HSV -
were the guests and Bielefeld was desperately playing to avoid relegation.
And at the same time, Hamburg were about to be crowned German Champions.
Kevin Keegan - an Englishman who is mentioned occasionally in Nick Hornby's
book - was playing for Hamburg. Bielefeld's football stadium was a simple
affair in those days. There was only seating on one side of the field; on
the other side where we were standing, and at the ends, was just standing
room. It was a warm, sunny day in May. The stand was constructed of wooden
boards on tubular supports, rather like a temporary construction scaffold.
We were packed closely together like vertical sardines - there were very
many thousand spectators standing on that construction - and I began to
wonder how much weight those supports could carry. At one point Bielefeld
scored, and everybody jumped at once, accompanied by a tremendous roar. The
fact that I am writing about this so many years in the future shows that the
supports did hold!
But then the local team was unable to keep playing at the
top level. It oscillated for a time between the first and second divisions,
and I lost interest. At the moment they are dumpling along in the 3rd
division, and I am astonished to hear that despite this, an average of
10,000 people still keep coming to the home games. The stadium, which used
to have the pleasantly alpine name of the "Alm", has now become a modern,
fully enclosed stadium with seating everywhere, and with the commercialized
name "SchücoArena". I have heard that it seats about 30,000, which is an
embarrassment for a club which plays so badly. Those other obscure 3rd
division teams must enjoy the spectacle of playing in such a large arena.
So it is difficult for me to sympathize with the emotions
Nick Hornby describes in his devotion to Arsenal. He is only interested in
winning. And when Arsenal isn't winning then he falls into the depths of
depression. He also describes the brutality of the English football fans
around him. Many of them throw bananas at black players on the field, making
loud grunting noises, supposedly imitating monkeys. Others shout
anti-semitic slogans. And so forth. Here at the "Alm" I did once hear two
fellows grunting, and it took me a while to understand what that was
supposed to be about. But that was near the time I stopped going.
Watching the occasional match on TV, I am impressed with
the skill and the level of play in the modern game. It is a joy to watch the
precise passing and the ball control in a team like Bayern. And what a
wonderful thing it was to watch all the great players in the Spanish team at
the last World Cup, and the European Cup which they won as well. Things
change so quickly. Almost all of the names of the English football players
of the 1970s and 80s which Hornby describes meant nothing to me. But I do
know the names of some of the Arsenal players for tonight's game.
So now it is late at night and the game turned out to be
a scrappy affair. Arsenal played the way Nick Hornby describes them. They
had a very nicely played goal after only three minutes. In the second half
Bayern seemed to dominate things, having many shots at the goal, but without
success. Then with only four minutes to go, Arsenal was able to score from a
corner. They needed another goal in order to make it past Bayern to the
quarter finals of the Champions League, but that didn't happen. It wasn't a
pleasant game to watch.
by Haruki Murakami
I've seen this book in the bookshop and in Amazon.com for
the last couple of years, but the thought of its voluminous bulk - over 1000
pages - seemed too much. But on the other hand, I've read through numbers of
his other books, and in the sum it must come to thousands of pages all
together, so I suppose the bulkiness of this book is not really an
Since I am writing this review, I have actually read the
book. It turned out to be a disappointment. 1000 pages is just too much for
a single story. I didn't buy it. Instead I read it second - or third - hand
in a German translation, rather than an English one. In order to economize,
the German publishers saw fit to use a small typeface and to crowd the type
right in close to the binding. In a paperback book as thick as this, the
curvature of the pages into the binding gives a long valley down into the
glue at the backbone, so it was necessary to press the pages down with
force, and tilt the book into the light in order to read the thing. Not good
for any real reading pleasure.
Murakami writes in a way that keeps drawing you on from
page to page, even beyond page 1000. Ever new angles, new developments of
the story. But upon reaching the end, the disappointed reader finds that it
still hasn't ended! At the beginning of the book it says that this is Part
1, and somewhere around page 500 it says this is Part 2. But then, having
plodded all the way to the end of Part 2, we find that the whole thing is
still a mystery. Lots of crazy things have happened, but we don't know why,
or where they are supposed to be leading us. I briefly thought about buying
Part 3 of the story, which is in a separate volume which you have to buy
separately for another ten dollars or something. Just to find out how things
turn out. But then I looked at the reviews of the Part 3 volume which normal
people had written in Amazon.com. It consists of another 500 or600 pages,
and the people who had waded through all of that wrote to say that the story
didn't come to any sensible conclusion even after all those further pages!
So I was disappointed.
by Thomas Hoover
Clicking around Gutenberg.org, looking for something to
read on the Kindle. The problem is that almost all the books there are very
much dated. Best just to look for the classics. One way to browse their list
of books is to look at the 100 most popular downloads in the last day, or
week, or month, and I found that this one was at the top of the list. After
downloading it, I was surprised to find that it is not an ancient story. In
fact Thomas Hoover is very much
alive, and this book was written just a few years ago. He has had various of
his books published by real publishers, not the vanity press. But it is
obvious that he has another life, independent of these book publishers, and
so he is simply offering all of his books openly for everyone to download as
It is an interesting story involving medical research.
Stem cells to give you new life, cure disease, live on without aging.
According to current thinking, the telomeres
on the ends of the chromosomes shorten with every cell division. When you
reach 80 or 90 years old, they are all gone and the cells in the body cannot
sensibly divide any more. Death from old age. And yet! the body contains
stem cells with a full set of telomeres. Even the bodies of old people.
There is an enzyme in the body called telomerase
reverse transcriptase which sticks a new set of telomeres onto the
ends of chromosomes. So why doesn't it keep us young forever?
Who knows? The chemistry of the body seems to me to be
almost infinitely complicated and bewildering. And there is more to aging
that just telomeres. The story in the book is that some medical genius
sticks some extra telomerase reverse transcriptase into various people, and
presto! they become healthy and young again. But this wonderful medical
advance has some disastrous side-effects. It is all being carried out in a
secret laboratory, buried in the back woods of northern New Jersey,
controlled by an evil oligarch. Unfortunately this promising plot falls
apart due to a whole chain of ridiculous coincidences, turning the whole
thing into a mere parody of what the author intended. But still, it is
freely available for downloading, and if one is prepared to imagine that
some of these coincidences are not there then it is an amusing read.
The story has many parallels with Banks' earlier book, The
Crow Road. A young fellow growing up in a small Scottish town, leaving
it, and coming home to his memories. Lots of juvenile dialogue. It is a love
story where the girl belongs to a rich, violent, tight-knit Scottish clan.
The book was written just a couple of years ago, so it describes the
contemporary world, rather than the 1980s world of Crow Road. The characters
are continuously interacting with their mobile telephones, tablet computers,
and all that modern paraphernalia.
Iain Banks takes great pains to tell us in many
repetitious passages throughout the book how he thinks that Apple products
are superior to non-Apple products. The hero loses his iPhone, or rather it
is thrown into the ocean from a bridge during a violent attack on the hero
by the brothers of his girlfriend. Unfortunately there is no Apple store in
the small Scottish town, and thus in order to continue keeping in touch with
the world he must resort to purchasing for temporary use a "rubbish" phone,
presumably something by Samsung, running the Android operating system. He
laments the fact that this rubbish will be incapable of synchronizing with
his iPad so that the information he will electronically collect in the next
day or two will not be easily integrated into the assemblage of Apple
products which he has back in his London flat. How tragic.
Elsewhere here I have expounded on my experiences with
Apple computers. I got an Apple 2 back in 1983 or so and a "fat Mac" with
500kB of memory in 1985. Back in those days I wasted many hours
unsuccessfully trying to write a program in 68000 assembler language in
order to get the SAC computer algebra system to work nicely on the
Siebenmann spent even more time programming a special set of shortcuts
for writing TeX files on the Macintosh. But all that is long ago. Now all
these expensive Apple things are bought by Iain Banks, and millions of other
people like him. Who would have known that Apple would become the most
highly valued company in the world? Don't we all wish that we could have had
the good fortune to have invested in Apple shares back 10 or 15 years ago
when they first came up with those clunky, gaudy iMacs? Then we would all be
millionaires today! Raking in the profits to be gained by all the things
sold in the iTunes shop. And think of all those with-it people, updating
their iThings to the latest model every year or two.
Oh well. Thinking of such things leads me to wonder where
all the wealth comes from which Iain Banks describes in the Scottish town of
the story. Whenever I visit England, it seems to me to be a great mystery
how the people there live. The motorways surge with their Volvos, Mercedes,
and BMWs. And their little, cramped terraced houses cost hundreds of
thousands of dollars. Where does all the money come from? In Iain Banks
present book, the main income stream - at least for the violent family of
the girlfriend - is said to be illicit drug dealing, although this doesn't
really play a great role in the story. While this may be a plausible source
of wealth for her family, allowing them to surround themselves with
expensive cars and country mansions, still their customers must have the
money to buy these drugs. North Sea oil is hinted at. But surely all of the
wealth of England does not stem from that source alone.
I remember visiting relatives in Sheffield years ago.
University people. They had lived there since the 1940s or 50s. And they
asked the same question. Back in those days, Sheffield was a center of
industry, producing and exporting goods throughout the world. But Thatcher
destroyed all that. Now there seems to be no visible industry left in
Sheffield. And yet people continue to live and seemingly to prosper in the
"service industries". But where does the money ultimately come from? Is it
just the continual accumulation of ever greater mountains of debt? Or is it
the banking industry in the City of London which Thatcher encouraged to
engage in ever more devious practices, thus robbing money from their
gullible customers in other, less rapacious countries?
We were in England for a couple of weeks. Going into the
Waterstone's bookshop in the center of town, I noticed that numbers of their
books seemed to be particularly recommended. They were chosen for the "W
Book Club". So I bought a couple of them. This was the first one I read. A
generous typeface with lots of comfortable spacing on the pages. The blurbs
on the back cover seemed encouraging. For example the quote from Zadie Smith
was: "Idoisyncratic and fascinating... refreshingly contemporary in language
The two names in the title of the book refer to two
policemen in London. There has been a shooting, and so we start reading,
expecting to find out who did it, and so forth. A detective story. The
clues, the witnesses, the circumstances all seem to produce contradictory
narratives, and we wonder how things will develop. But the next chapter
lurches forward with another story which seems only vaguely connected with
what came before. Then the third chapter is again totally different. We
begin to have glimpses of the depravity of one character after the other.
Our two policemen are not models of perfect moral behavior. The thing
becomes more and more disjointed. The original shooting is no longer of
importance. At the end, we are confronted with some sort of depravity
involving the wife of the boss of Hawthorn and Child.
So what is the book about? I suppose police work is
disjointed, chaotic. And one is led into the depths of human depravity.
Maybe the book is a sort of picture of life in London these days. We were in
Plymouth, not London. But the English people there were all extremely
friendly and helpful. Totally generous. It is difficult to understand how
the clique of old school boys from Eton who are now leading the country to
ruin continue to remain in power.
The second "W Book Club" book I bought was "The house of rumour", by Jake
Arnott. I read about 150 pages before giving up. It was a silly fantasy
mixing 1930s boy adventure science fiction with the characters of Nazi
Germany in various absurd, disjointed ways.
This was the third book from Waterstones. It was
certainly more enjoyable to read than the first two. Various episodes
involving a rock formation - the Pinnacles - somewhere out in the desert of
Nevada. We have the narrative of a Spanish missionary in the year 1778, then
a disoriented linguist studying Indian languages in 1920, a western loner in
1947, and a hippie colony high on drugs, believing they are in tune with the
Powers of the Galaxy in 1969. But the main story takes place in 2008-9. A
small somewhat disjointed young family - the father's family immigrated from
Pakistan, the mother's family is established Jewish, and thus both of them
give the author the opportunity to write various politically correct things,
together with their strangely disturbed and retarded young boy - drive
randomly out into the desert to camp in a typical, cheap motel. There they
briefly interact with a famous, but also disturbed, English rock musician.
And then the boy disappears under the Pinnacles, to reappear months later as
a glowing apparition. And that is the end of the book.
All very mysterious. Googling the author's name, I find
Kunzru is fascinated with the idea of UFOs and such things. Well, OK.
But I think that if we are going to have a nice flying saucer story, then it
should be properly told, coming to a proper conclusion. Just having a
mysterious open ending, saying nothing, seems to me to be a frivolous waste
of the reader's time. If the boy, and some of the other characters in past
years, climbed into a flying saucer and were transformed into new,
transcendental beings, then Hari Kunzru should say so clearly. I want to
know what the flying saucer looks like from the inside. And what are the big
"mother ships" hovering out in deep space really like? I can remember
reading a book as a child many, many years ago which was concerned with the
idea that the moons of Mars are vast spaceships. It was a wonderful vision,
giving a coherent story. In contrast, the story of this book is just empty
coquetry. On the other hand, the book does provide us with a series of
amusing glimpses of possible scenes of American desert life over the years.
The best book I've read for quite some time. It is
loosely based on the story of Huey
Long, who was the Governor of Louisiana during the period 1928-32.
It's not a short book, but you get a very nice picture of life in the Deep
South amongst the comfortable, white ruling class back in those days.
The book is narrated by a character named Jack Burden. He
is the right hand man to "The Boss", Willie Stark, the Governor. Willie
Stark, like Huey Long, was a reformer, believing in active government,
spending money freely on public works. He was opposed by the old
conservative class which was simply concerned with traditional forms of
corruption. But in order to succeed, Willie Stark also had to play
"hardball". His philosophy was that whatever goodness there is in human
nature stems ultimately from evil, and therefore in order to destroy an
opponent, one need only find the evil at his core. And so Jack Burden's job
was to discover the evil, the corruption, behind one or another of the
political opponents of his employer, the Boss.
Jack had at first thought that his father was a certain,
rather unsatisfactory man which his mother had long ago divorced. But in
reality his father was "The Judge", a person of seemingly impeccable
character who, nevertheless, became an opponent of the Boss. Thus Jack set
about discovering the hidden evil behind his father. A complicated story,
and it is also a story of the love Jack has for his childhood sweetheart,
the daughter of the previous Governor.
I had some trouble trying to identify the State where the
whole thing takes place. Jack keeps returning to the town of his childhood
and all the memories it brings. It is on the shore of the Gulf - obviously
the Gulf of Mexico. This brings to mind Louisiana, or Alabama, or even
Mississippi. But then towards the end of the book, Willie Stark's son
becomes a great college football quarterback, and we are told that this is
in Georgia. Thus it seems that the action is supposed to be in Georgia. Yet
Georgia does not adjoin the Gulf of Mexico.
Be that as it may, it was interesting to compare Willie
Stark's philosophy about good and evil with the other characters in the
book. Jack Burden himself doesn't seem to be hiding any great evil secrets.
Nor is his love (and in the end his wife), Anne Stanton. While both of them
had their ups and downs in life, there was nothing so bad as to be worth
trying to blackmail them about it. On the other hand, Karl Rove, the
real-life seeker after evil in the employ of that disgusting George W. Bush,
was certainly able to defeat John McCain by employing such tactics.
In the end though, the political games played by the
characters in the period of this book seem quaint, almost gentlemanly. There
is no actual murder, no gross intimidation. These days, thanks to the
Internet, we have become aware of the breathtaking level of evil and
corruption which exists at the level of high government.
An historical novel. The builder of the Taj Mahal was the
Moghul emperor Shah
Jahan, who lived from 1592-1666. At the beginning of this period the Portuguese controlled
trade with India, dominating the coastal waters with their galleons.
But then other countries, and in particular the East
India Company of England, began to force their way in as well. This
was accompanied by various sea battles - in which the Portuguese often did
poorly - and lots of diplomatic intrigues. One of the early figures in this
business was the Englishman William
Hawkins. And so Thomas Hoover has written a swashbuckling novel based
on these ideas, with many of the details changed. William Hawkins becomes
"Brian Hawksworth". Shah Jehan becomes "Prince Jader". And so forth.
It was an enjoyable read, if rather too long.
The author takes great pains to explain at every step of
the way how superior all things Indian were to all things European back then
in the 17th century. While this is all part of the fantasy, still it seems
to me that a little sober reflection might have been more appropriate here
and there. For example:
Certainly there was much to admire in India in those
days, and there was much to lament about Europe. So we shouldn't take all
the exaggerations and fantasy in a book such as this too seriously.
- The book begins with a sea battle. Hawksworth
approaches the port of Surat under sail in his two smallish ships and
they are confronted by four large Portuguese men of war guarding the
entrance. We can refer to the real-life confrontation in the Battle
of Swally. But whereas that was a somewhat indecisive affair, in
Captain Hawksworth's fictional version, the English annihilated the
Portuguese fleet with almost no loss to their two boats. So if we accept
the idea that the English sailors were superior to the Portuguese, and
that the Portuguese controlled Indian shipping, then it would follow
that European sea power was superior to whatever naval presence the
Mohgul Empire may have been able to put into the water.
- Brian Hawksworth then makes it onto land, and he
becomes involved in various complicated intrigues. During this time, he
is supplied with a continuous stream of female companions, all of whom
provide him with the most exquisite delights, thus demonstrating the
superiority of Indian hospitality in comparison with that of Europe. But
is it reasonable to suppose that the women were also delighted with this
whole situation? Despite the fact that under the Islam of the Moghuls,
the man was allowed four wives, or rather a whole harem with hundreds of
further women, we have a description in the book of the marriage of a
Prince to a daughter of the Queen. After the exhausting ceremony, the
newly-weds retire to a bed while the rest of the company loudly awaits
the blood-stained sheet, proving both the virility of the groom and the
virginity of the bride. I know that this disgusting tradition still
exists in some Arab countries even today! I don't know if the second,
third, and what have you, wives are also subjected to this disgusting
mess. And as far as the Hindu part of India was concerned, we have the
spectacle of young girls being forced into marriage under highly dubious
circumstances. And then, in those days, at least amongst the warrior
caste, it was expected that if the man dies then the wives were to throw
themselves alive into the flames of his funeral pyre... No. I'm sorry.
For me it is obvious that the European version of love was much superior
to that which applied in India during the Moghul Empire.
- We are told that Hawksworth has brought along his
lute for the trip, and although it was stowed away in his sea chest for
all the months of the voyage, still he is sufficiently well in practice
to be able to play a very moving rendition of a gaillard or two by that
great English composer, William Byrd. Whether he plays to one or another
of his girlfriends, or to one or another of the princes of India, they
all laugh at him, pitying him his simple, primitive instrument.
Then they demonstrate the superiority of Indian music by having the
nearest music-playing slave play the same tune on a sitar, turning it
into an elaborate raga. Well, I suppose it is pointless to contest the
superiority of one form of art in relation to another. I can only say
that I prefer lute music to the twangy sounds of the sitar. And whereas
I can understand and be moved by the emotions in a song by William Byrd,
the complicated thoughts which are supposed to be associated with an
Indian raga leave me cold.
- Then, as the book finally draws to a climax, we
have a long description of a major battle between two armies. One is led
by the rebellious Prince Jadar (with Hawksworth and his favorite
girlfriend in attendance), the other represents the forces of the
reigning Moghul. It all seems overwhelming, and certainly Thomas Hoover
tells us that the Indian fighting forces were much superior to anything
which a humdrum European battle of the period had to offer. (There were
many of those, decimating the population of Europe during the 17th
century.) And yet, during a later period when the English had India more
or less under control, we have the example of the Siege
of Delhi, where a small English force was able to capture a
fortified town occupied by a much larger defensive army.
I hadn't read this before, but some years ago there was a
film of the novel shown on television, so many of the scenes seemed
familiar. The persuasion of the title refers to something that happened
eight years before the time of the story (1810 or so). The heroine, Anne
Elliot, was persuaded not to marry the man she was in love with, Frederick
Wentworth, an officer in the Royal Navy. The reason given was that he was
"beneath" her. Yet now, eight years later, he returns to the neighborhood as
a Captain in retirement, having acquired some riches in the process of
sinking various French ships during the Napoleonic Wars. Furthermore, he is
the brother of the wife of the Admiral who is now renting the manor house of
the Elliot family. Anne still loves Frederick, and Frederick still loves
Anne, but the whole situation with its absurd collection of pretenses means
that it takes the length of the complicated story of the book to finally get
them together as a married couple. While it is always enjoyable to read
these books of Jane Austen, still, I must admit that they often strike me as
being rather silly romances, written to inspire the dreamy visions of young
The reason Anne Elliot was thought to be a member of a
higher level of English society than Frederick Wentworth is that her father
was a baronet. I have no
real idea about these aristocratic titles, and thus I looked it up in the
Wikipedia. There I see that it is the lowest form of aristocracy. A baronet
is not a peer, and was
thus not entitled to sit in the House of Lords before that body was reformed
to exclude the aristocracy from meddling too much in government.
Nevertheless a baronet is an hereditary title. As far as I can gather from a
quick perusal via Google, the idea of baronets seems to be an English thing.
True peers - or at least the original ancestors who earned their titles -
did so by establishing their merits in the field of battle as companions to
the king, or by their positions as medieval warlords. Thus a Count (or Earl
in the English system) was the original warlord whose domain became a county
in the modern division of government. But in contrast to this, the baronets
received their titles by means of paying a certain sum of money to the
monarch. The title was simply bought! In more recent times the practice has
largely lapsed, but I do see that Margaret Thatcher, that woman who
contributed so much to the decline of England, saw to it that her family was
also given the title of baronet from the Queen. And thus, since it is an
inherited, though debased, title, it seems that her son Mark,
a convicted criminal who has distinguished himself through various instances
of corruption, holds the ridiculous title "The Second Baronet Thatcher", and
this will be passed on through his issue from one generation to the next!
From the description of Anne Elliot's father in the book,
I think that Jane Austen was also making fun of this absurd aspect of
This is an interesting book which seems to be very well
researched. Hoover describes the history of both Buddhism and Japan. As far
as Buddhism is concerned, on a recent trip to Kathmandu and the approach to
Mt. Everest we visited many Buddhist monasteries and walked past countless stupas, turning prayer
wheels everywhere along the way. Our Sherpa guide, who was a wonderfully
sincere, friendly and helpful man, explained to us the religious
significance of all these things. But he said that the Buddhism of the
Himalayas is not Zen Buddhism.
According to the common tradition, the Buddha, namely a
character named Siddhārtha Gautama - who is thought to have been a native of
Nepal - achieved enlightenment, Nirvana, through meditation, thus becoming
the Buddha. But what is this state of Nirvana?
Our guide of the mountains was unable to explain his view of this concept in
a way which was, for me, understandable. And our guide around the many
beautiful temples of Kathmandu had a more detached, down-to-earth view of
life. As he explained it, Nepal is a very tolerant place as far as religion
goes. Both Buddhism and Hinduism offer the believer thousands, if not
millions of possible deities, or holy figures, and so there is no need for
the horrible religious wars which have been the main characteristic of the
monotheistic religions of the West. After all, if someone is unsatisfied
with one possible deity, then it is a trivial matter to simply embrace
But the main idea of this whole religious mishmash is
that after death, we are supposed to be born
again to go through life in a new reincarnation. This idea is
repugnant to me since the life I have had up to now, which is gradually
reaching its final stages, has been so optimal that I can scarcely imagine
anything better. Any reincarnation would be worse than the present version!
How tedious and boring it would be to have to experience the world over and
over again, each time in a less than ideal state of life. But as with many
such religious themes, there seem to be countless versions, interpretations,
speculations. My impression was that the people of Nepal live in a sublime
state of religious confusion and tolerance.
As Thomas Hoover explains it, the Nirvana of Siddhārtha
Gautama was totally unlike this whole religious muddle. The Buddha felt that
logic, arguments, ideas, are nothing. Nirvana is the realization that we are
nothing. Religion is nothing. And the whole complex structure of modern
Buddhism, with all its complicated ideas, statues, paths to enlightenment,
and what have you, gradually accumulated over time, leads progressively away
from Siddhārtha's pure Nirvana. Then, according to the book, Chán
Buddhism developed in China, leading back to the original teachings of
Siddhārtha. The word "Chán" was translated into Japanese as "Zen", and so
there you are.
I have never been to Japan so that I am unable to say
whether or not all of the wonderful attributes which Thomas Hoover
associates with that country and its arts and traditions are true. As
mentioned elsewhere here, I was most impressed with the recent performance
of a visiting master of the Japanese shakuhachi
flute. Nevertheless, it is true that Japan is still reviled in Asia
for its past aggressions. The corruption which resulted in the Fukashima
Daiichi catastrophe hardly seems consistent with the Zen ideals described in
the book. I am also not a fan of Japanese food. As Thomas Hoover describes
it, the food is purposefully bland so that the connoisseur can pick out
subtle flavors. But I like strong flavors. Indian food, or Italian food. He
devotes many pages to Japanese Zen gardens. As I say, I have never been to
Japan, so I cannot say whether or not the experience of seeing such a garden
would immediately transport me into a transcendental state of Nirvana. On
the other hand, I am writing this on the 22nd of June, when the sun has just
passed the summer solstice. And looking at our garden now, with nature in
the fullness of life, with a structure we have gradually shaped over the
years, for me this is as good as it can be.
by Franz Kafka
This book has the subtitle "Der Verschollene", which can
be translated as "The man who disappeared". The basic story is that a
character named Karl Roßmann, a youth of 17 or so, a native of Germany in
the period before the First World War when many people emigrated from
Germany to the USA, despite his youth, managed to impregnate a servant girl.
And thus he was banished to Amerika with the instruction that he was not
allowed to return home.
The book begins with a somewhat surreal chapter in which
Karl's ship has just arrived in New York, and everybody is getting off. But
while waiting near the gangway, he remembers that he had forgotten his
umbrella. Thus he descends into the bowels of the ship and gets lost. He
finds a stoker sulking in his cabin, dissatisfied with the treatment he has
had under the head stoker. So Karl tries to be very nice and accompanies the
stoker to the captain's cabin in order to lodge a formal complaint. Of
course, during all this time, his luggage gets lost, apparently stolen. But
in the captain's cabin there happens to be a very important person, a rich
senator of the USA, who, it turns out, happens to be a long lost uncle of
This first chapter was published independently by Kafka
as a short story, "Der Heizer", in 1913. But in the book, the story of Karl
in Amerika continues. The uncle puts him up in a huge New York mansion and
employs a tutor to come every day to teach him English. The uncle appears to
be every bit as evil as today's criminal bankers of Wall Street. After a
seemingly trivial misunderstanding, the uncle ejects Karl from his mansion,
commanding him never to come again. Once again destitute, Karl joins up with
two devious vagrants, one an immigrant from France, the other from Ireland.
They cheat him; he tries to escape, but circumstances bring him back to
them. In the end he is held by them in an apartment as a kind of slave,
serving a fat woman. It's all a horrible mess.
But I suppose life was brutal for many of the immigrants
to New York a hundred years ago. The gangs of New York. Many must have ended
up in a kind of dependency little removed from slavery in the sweat shops of
the Lower East Side.
In one chapter, Karl goes to sleep and has an elaborate
dream about joining a vast circus which is supposed to take him to someplace
in the Midwest, away from all this horror of New York. I suppose that
chapter could also be taken to be a Kafkaesque short story.
But quite frankly I found the book to be simply tedious.
Throughout, it was clear that Kafka had never traveled to America, and thus
he had no real idea about what it was like. Also the book was unfinished. In
fact there are three unfinished manuscripts for novels by Kafka. The other
two are "Der Process" (The Trial) and "Das Schloss" (The Castle). It seems
that Kafka burned many of his manuscripts, being dissatisfied with them. But
he gave these three to his friend Max Brod, with the instruction to burn
them upon his (Kafka's) death - of tuberculosis, in 1924. Well, what would
you do in Max Brod's place? After all, if Kafka really wanted the
manuscripts burned, then surely he would have done it himself. Now they are
worth lots of money. And the various heirs of the people who owned them at
one time or another have become involved in an unending series of squabbles
over the money.
After finishing Amerika, and being disappointed,
I started reading Das Schloss in the hope that it might turn out to
be a more satisfying read. But I have now given up after getting through
only about a third of it. It is concerned with a character named "K" (for
Kafka?) becoming involved in an endless and seemingly absurd series of
interactions with an all-powerful bureaucracy. The book goes on and on with
the details of the logic, or lack of logic, of this bureaucracy. The idea of
this is interesting at first, but after pages and pages of the same, it
again becomes increasingly tedious. It seems to me that Kafka's natural
medium was the short story. Expanding such short stories into manuscripts
hundreds of pages long was not a good idea.
It is often said, perhaps on the basis of his stories,
that Franz Kafka was an unhappy man, depressed with the failings of the
world. And yet as a student he was very successful; in his professional life
he worked for the Workers Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of
Bohemia. Thus he was himself a bureaucrat in the style of Das Schloss.
But far from being a depressing failure in this profession, he in fact
flourished, receiving rapid promotion. It was a lush job where he could call
it a day at two o'clock in the afternoon, leaving time to continue with his
writing career. And far from being a social outcast, I see that his
biographer, Reiner Stach, states that his life was full of "incessant
With hindsight, many people say that Kafka's works
represent a kind of anticipation of the horrors of the Nazi period. Perhaps
this is true. Nevertheless, for me the short stories are much better than
these half finished novels.
In the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin - she had not yet
married the poet Percy Shelley - spent the summer with her future husband in
Geneva, together with Lord Byron, Mary's step-sister Claire
Clairmont, and John
William Polidori. As a member of the rich British aristocracy, the
money flowed from Lord Byron, and he rented the spacious Villa
Diodati, overlooking Lake Geneva, for his guests. The Shelleys took a
more modest house in the neighborhood. It was a rainy summer, so they
gathered together in Lord Byron's villa and discussed one thing and another.
Byron suggested that they each write a tale of the supernatural. And thus
Mary Shelley wrote this famous tale of Frankenstein.
In those days, electricity was something new, mysterious.
It was found that if an electrical current was passed through a dead frog's
leg, then that leg twitched as if it were alive. Could it be that
electricity was the thing that animated life? Could dead matter be brought
to life by some chemical, or electrical means?
These days we know much more about what goes on in a
living organism. People play around with DNA, constructing arbitrary
sequences of the stuff, just for fun. We can make tiny
machines using DNA. In 2012, George
M. Church wrote a book about such things and then for fun encoded the
text of the entire book in a long strand of DNA. In 2010, Craig
Ventor's team of researchers constructed a sequence of DNA, stuck it
into a cell from which the original DNA had been removed, and found that it
lived and reproduced itself. Life seems to be nothing more than a vast -
albeit extremely complicated - chemical process. In any case, it is
certainly not true that a lone chemist in 1816 would have been capable of
creating a living human being from inanimate material.
Nevertheless, I found this book to be fascinating. Victor
Frankenstein was not the monster, rather he was its creator. He grew up in
Geneva in comfortable circumstances, perhaps in the Villa Diodati itself.
Victor's family was extremely loving, and so forth. He developed an interest
in "natural philosophy", or "science", as it is called these days, and
traveled to the university in Eichstadt in Germany in order to study there.
After a couple of years he discovered the secret of life - which, according
to Shelley - was astonishingly simple, and so he conceived the idea of
creating a human being. She does not waste many pages on the details of this
process. After all, this is supposed to be a tale of the supernatural.
But she does tell us that Frankenstein found the whole thing to be often
disgusting. In the interests of ease of construction, he decided to make his
monster somewhat bigger than the normal plan. Suddenly the monster comes
alive, and Frankenstein is shocked and revolted by the being he has created.
He flees from his apartment, and when he returns the monster has thankfully
But as the story develops we find that Frankenstein's
monster is really a tender-hearted soul. He finds real people to be
wonderful, and he himself is revolted by his own deformities. Despite these,
he has super-human strength, agility, power. He would like to help people.
He saves a drowning person, and so forth. But despite all his efforts for
goodness, people attack him, or run away, screaming. Eventually he succumbs
to the urge for revenge against his creator. He strangles Victor
Frankenstein's friends and dear ones, one after the other. And Frankenstein
is driven to near madness in his pursuit of the monster. In the end,
Frankenstein dies of exhaustion, and the monster, after declaring his
remorse about the whole situation, disappears into the ice fields of the
Arctic to let himself die through cold and hunger.
I have never seen any of the Frankenstein movies which
have been made over the years. I can imagine that they are nothing more than
silly horror fantasies, nowhere near as interesting as the book. If so, then
they miss the point. It is a parable on the dilemma of human "progress". The
most obvious example which springs to mind is the artificial - or
"synthetic" - life which people are now creating. Consider gene
therapy. Some people have inherited terrible genetic diseases. In the
natural order of things they would soon die, as infants. But modern medicine
keeps them alive. And perhaps they can be "healed" by altering their DNA,
thus chemically changing them into "normal" people. One mechanism for doing
this is by infecting them with an artificially created virus, or
retro-virus, which infects many of the cells in their body, replacing the
bit of DNA which is thought to be abnormal with a more normal copy. Well,
OK. This is the good phase of Frankenstein's creation. But what if this
artificial virus becomes an infectious disease, creating a pandemic? Can we
be sure this will never happen? Who knows? And in the absence of such
knowledge can we justify denying these sick people such gene
Or think about atomic energy. Obviously a source of evil,
a monster. But it could be a source of good, perhaps using the thorium fuel
cycle, providing almost limitless supplies of energy.
And robots. How quaint were the "Three
Laws of Robotics" proposed back then in the 1950s by the science
fiction writer Issac Asimov. He imagined that robots were supposed to be
loving entities, helping and protecting a grateful humanity. What a
difference reality is! One of the main drivers in the development of robots
is the military. In complete contradiction to Asimov's naive vision, the
main purpose of these robots is to kill people and at the same time, protect
In light of all these possible horrors which far exceed
the visions of Mary Shelley, many people simply stick their heads in the
sand, rejecting everything which is new. Pure, simple nature should be
allowed to prevail. Save the Earth! is their absurd creed. Of course
humanity, as a species, will not prevail forever. But the thing that we have
in abundance: flexibility, adaptability, shouldn't be underestimated. We
have the ability to create all sorts of monsters, but if the will is there,
they can be brought under control to our common good.
The author is a professor of neurology at the New York
University Medical School. Judging from this book, and from a TED
video in which he gives a talk, Oliver Sacks seems to be a very humane
person, well suited for dealing with patients with difficult mental
dilemmas. He tries to understand their feelings, the reasons they might not
behave in ways which most people would consider to be normal. Many have
brain injuries, often caused by a stroke, leading to memory loss, or the
loss of other functions. Or the hormones may act up. And then of course
there are people who are, on the one hand totally mentally retarded, but on
the other hand are able to perform unbelievable feats of memory,
arithmetical calculation, music, or whatever. What makes them all tick?
The book consists of a collection of short descriptions
of patients Dr. Sacks has known, illustrating various things which can come
up, and he philosophizes about what their stories tell us. The author
himself has an interesting mental abnormality called "prosopagnosia",
or "face blindness". Apparently many
other famous people also have this condition. It seems difficult to
imagine what the problem is, but as is shown in this
video, even for "normal" people, it is difficult to recognize faces if
we look at them upside down.
Then there are people who cannot remember the immediate
past. Their memory ends years, even decades ago. So they live in the
present, seemingly unaware of the problem, perhaps fighting within
themselves to maintain some sort of sensible idea of their own identity. For
the outsider, such cases seem totally hopeless, tragic.
And then he describes the case of two apparently moronic
and deformed twins who were totally helpless, unable to exist in the world
without help. They could hardly speak. And they could barely grasp the ideas
of addition and subtraction of numbers. Multiplication and division meant
absolutely nothing to them. Yet if given any date up to 40,000 years in the
past or the future, then their eyes would swivel back and forth for a second
or two, as if watching some numerical vision, and immediately they could say
which day of the week fell on that date. This seems to me to be incredible.
After all, they would have to know the rule for leap years: namely every
year divisible by 100 and not divisible by 400 is not a leap year!
Also they seemed to recognize prime numbers - even those of 10 or 12 decimal
places - just by feeling that they are more pleasant than non-prime numbers.
In the clinic of Dr. Sacks it was decided that the goal
of neurology is to "cure" people, enabling them to function normally in the
real world. And in the case of the twins it was thought that if they were
separated, then perhaps they would not spend all their time playing around
with these senseless numbers, and instead they might be able to become more
normal. But after the separation it was found that both of the twins had
lost their strange numerical genius. Instead they simply became hopelessly
retarded simpletons, robbed of their one pleasure in life.
The book was a fascinating read. Many of the cases dealt
with make one question what it really is to be a normal thinking person. I
go through life imagining that other people experience the world in the same
way that I do. But this is not always true. Maybe it is only seldom true.
author is a professor of history at Oxford. He wasn't when he wrote
this book, yet it, along with numbers of other well researched books of an
academic nature led to his success. The subject is the British Navy during
the Seven Years War (1756-63). What was life really like for the sailors on
the ships? An interesting subject, fraught with many misconceptions. But to
be honest, I became a bit bored with the book towards the end, in the
chapters devoted to "Careers at Sea", "Patronage and Promotion", and so
forth. These topics are interesting in themselves, but in the book the
various ideas are supported by hundreds of short descriptions of the careers
of countless obscure individuals. For the academic attempting to "prove" his
point to other academics, this might be necessary, but for the general
reader it simply becomes tedious.
So what was life like in His Majesties Ships during the
18th century? Were the ships like concentration camps, with the poor
sailors, kidnapped by violent "press gangs", continually cringing under the
whip, flogged through the fleet, and what have you? The author deals with
all of these misconceptions.
For example, what was that business about press gangs?
And what is "impressment"
anyway? Only sailors were subject to impressment, not landsmen, and many
categories of sailors were exempt from the press. Furthermore, landsmen were
against it, so that often naval officers who were engaged in impressing
sailors on land would be themselves arrested and thrown into jail. Compare
this with the situation today. It is only in the last few years that Germany
has done away with the universal draft into military service. Many countries
still maintain a draft - that is, forcing young men, often against their
will, into military service. And this is in a time of general peace! During
war, it is thought to be quite normal to force almost all young men against
their will into this murderous business. What a brutal attitude we have
these days! In the 18th century in England, people thought that it was a
dreadful, inhuman business if just a few sailors were "drafted" during a
time of war.
Well, what was life like for the officers and men aboard
a big ship with 80 or 100 guns? To begin with, I was astonished to read
about the number of men on these ships. Hundreds and hundreds of people. It
must have been extremely crowded. But the food and drink were very good in
comparison with what could be expected on land. Many sailors joined the
navy, and stayed with it, for that reason.
And what is all that business about flogging with the "cat-o-nine-tails"?
According to the naval regulations, a captain was only allowed to administer
at most 12 strokes on his own initiative. More severe punishments required a
court martial, involving lots of captains and lots of bother, and which
often resulted in very extreme punishments. So they were only rarely brought
into effect. Cruel officers who were unpopular with the men produced
dangerous ships which would fail in action. Thus the admiralty took pains to
remove such officers. Furthermore, such officers, upon landing at port,
would often be attacked by their sailors. Murder was not unknown. And the
idea of "discipline" as it is known today was not practiced in the 18th
century. These days, a poor soldier, forced into the army by an oppressive
draft, is expected to obey his officers without question, grovelling before
them with signs of submission. But in the 18th century navy, the sailors
often knew much more about the complicated process of sailing a
square-rigged ship than did the officers. They often spoke as equals with
the officers. Arguing with them, shouting and cursing, even coming to blows.
That was considered normal. As N.A.M. Roger explains it, the excessive
emphasis these days which is placed on discipline is due to the fact that
our society is in a state of flux, of insecurity. In contrast, 18th century
England was a settled society, where the established order was not brought
So what were the crimes which were most heavily punished?
To begin with, theft was considered to be a most serious crime. With so many
people together on the ship, if trust is destroyed then the ship goes to
pieces. A thief would be sentenced to hundreds of lashes. And there were
cases where the rest of the sailors on the ship still felt that the
punishment was insufficient. But then the worst crime was considered to be
sodomy. It often resulted in the death penalty, but if not that, then
certainly a court martial leading to many hundreds of lashes.
These days, homosexuality is thought to be normal. Fair
enough. But consider the conditions which are reputed to exist in the
prisons of the U.S.A. - and I suppose in other countries as well. Men are
concentrated together in confined spaces for long periods of time, and they
engage in the forced homosexual rape of one another. And while the crime of
a man raping a woman is considered to be particularly odious, there seems to
be a certain toleration for homosexual rape. I have been told that
homosexuality is the order of the day in many modern naval ships. Does this
mean that the modern navy is better than the navy of the 18th century? I
hardly think so.
When I started studying mathematics in the early 1970s
there were four mythical problems which were considered to be completely
intractable. They were:
It was thought that each of these problems in mathematics was so difficult
that they would never be solved in our lifetimes. Perhaps they would never
be solved even until the end of time. Maybe they were so difficult that they
were unsolvable in the sense of Gödel's
Incompeteness Theorem. Who could say? In any case it would have
been rather a waste of time to actually start seriously thinking about such
And yet here we are in the year 2013, and the first three
of these problems have now been solved! How strange is reality! Who would
ever have expected such a result?
Back then in the 1970s I had the feeling that anything
which had been published in mathematics could be understood if you simply
applied yourself to it for a couple of days, or at most weeks. The proofs of
the theorems known then were contained in journal papers which were
generally short articles, at the most 10 or 20 pages long. Some fields, such
as number theory, or algebraic topology, had developed into involved
technical disciplines, where it might take some effort to work ones way into
the subject. Yet each individual result seemed to be something which could
be contemplated alone, as a single, beautiful work of art. All that has
The first of these problems to be solved was the Four
Color Problem, by Wolfgang
Haken. He was 50 years old when he solved it, thus falsifying the idea
that all mathematicians are washed up by the time they reach the age of 30.
The idea of the four color problem is to show that for any conceivable map
delineating countries, counties, or what have you, it is possible to color
the different regions with at most 4 colors so that no two adjacent regions
have the same color. The "proof" was a bit crazy. The idea was that if the
proposition was false, then there must be some map which needed at least 5
colors. Using a certain argument, it was shown that if this were true, then
such a map must contain some one of a "small" number of particular patterns
within it which could not be colored with 4 colors. In fact, there were
about 2000 such patterns, and each of them was shown to have a 4-coloring
using a computer program. But how did Haken identify all these 2000
patterns? This is too much for the human brain to contemplate! He told us
that in the end, when it was difficult to find the last ones, he got his
children to think about them. For each newly discovered pattern which hadn't
been thought of before, the reward was $10, or something. When no new
patterns were discovered, and everybody had given up, the theorem was
declared to be solved. (Later, Haken told us that he had a diligent Chinese
graduate student who identified all of these patterns using a programmed
algorithm, itself running on a computer. Since computers are obviously much
better at such things than people, we can assert that the theorem is
But Haken's real passion was 3-dimensional topology. He
spent many years trying to prove the Poincaré Conjecture. Indeed, I also
wasted years of time in my hopelessly naïve efforts trying to approach the
Poincaré Conjecture. Of the four great problems, I like to think that it is
the least obscure of them. It concerns a basic property of geometry. Namely,
of all possible 3-dimensional spaces, the basic, most simple space,
which we think of as being the 3-dimensional sphere, is - subject to some
simple qualifications - characterized by the property that all closed curves
within the space can be shrunk to a point. The proof, which in the end was
found by the Russian mathematician, Grigori
Perelman, does not use the simple algorithmic methods we were thinking
of. Instead it is a long, involved and complicated argument using ideas
which at first seem to have nothing to do with the problem. It is concerned
with something called the Ricci flow within the theory of Riemann manifolds.
Some years ago, I thought it would be a good idea to try and understand this
work of Perelman. I knew the basic definitions of Riemann geometry. For
example, we have the very clear and well written textbook of Manfredo
Perdigao do Carmo, which provides an excellent introduction for a university
course, running over a semester or two of lectures. But such an introduction
does not describe Perelman's work. Perelman himself has withdrawn from the
world, becoming something of a recluse. One reason he gives is that Shing-Tung
Yau, a Chinese, was associated with a manuscript purporting to
describe the proof of the Poincaré Conjecture, but in reality its purpose
was to downplay Perelman's work, and instead to play up some work of the
Chinese mathematicians Cao and Zhu. This
manuscript can be freely downloaded on the internet. I tried reading
it, but got bogged down and fed up with the fact that it didn't seem to be
describing Perelman's work, and thus the Poincaré Conjecture, at all. Another
manuscript describing the proof was written by John W. Morgan and Gang
Tian. Their manuscript uses a different form of notation, and they refer to
the textbook on Riemann geometry by Peter Petersen for this. So I started
reading that. But I find that half of the formulas in that book seem to have
glaring typographical errors, leading to irritating puzzles and
incomprehension. That is certainly not to say that I am immune from such
things. On the contrary, everything I write is filled with such errors. Thus
it is not for me to criticize. The end of the matter is that I decided that
my curiosity for this subject had evaporated, and I just gave up. But I am
left with great admiration for that wonderful mathematician Grigori
Perelman, and I can only salute him for his decision to reject all of these
unpleasant hangers-on and their various prizes. What a man of principle! He
has even rejected the $1,000,000 prize money of the Clay
Institute, saying that the mathematician Richard
Hamilton deserves it equally.
Well, the present book deals with the proof of the third
problem, Fermat's Last Theorem. Again, a huge proof, almost beyond the
capacity of a single person to comprehend as a whole. It uses methods which
have been developed in diverse fields of algebra and number theory. In the
end it came down to showing the equivalence of two obscure areas of
mathematics which, at first, appear to have nothing to do with one another,
namely the theory of modular forms and the theory of elliptic curves. This
is the Taniyama-Shimura
conjecture. I know very little about such things, but the book,
written for non-mathematicians, was most interesting. It gives lots of
historical background on Fermat, and how things developed over the
centuries. We have very complete accounts of the famous stories of
mathematics. All the details of the death by dueling of Evariste Galois in
1832. The story of Sophie Germain. Even various details of Pythagoras'
academy back in ancient Greece. But in the end, the story is of the
monumental struggle of Andrew Wiles to finally prove Taniyama-Shimura, and
thus Fermat's Last Theorem. There is a beautiful BBC film about all of this
which you can see via
YouTube. Both of these great mathematicians, Grigori Perelman and
Andrew Wiles, have achieved things which are beyond anything I can possibly
imagine. One is left with a feeling of wonder and astonishment. And so who
knows what will come in the future. Could it be that the world will soon
awake to the spectacle of a vast and incomprehensible proof of the Riemann
Hypothesis? I wouldn't bet against it!
And yet, in the end, what does all of this amount to? The
statements of the first three conjectures have been shown to be true. And
hardly anybody doubts that the Riemann Hypothesis is also true. But then
there are dozens of other, more or less obscure, hypotheses in mathematics
which have still not been proven. Many of them are so obscure that nobody is
even trying. In an abstract sense, there are infinitely many possible
hypotheses in mathematics. Who is to say what is interesting and what is
not? What should be the purpose of mathematics anyway? Is it to solve all of
these more or less obscure and abstruse puzzles? Those two great, towering
figures of the past, Carl Friedrich Gauss and David Hilbert, spent their
mature years thinking about problems in physics. And surely the problem of
resolving the chaotic state of theoretical physics today could provide a
fruitful and meaningful field of study for mathematicians of the future.
The author, J.K. Rowling, is the person who wrote all
those Harry Potter books. Hundreds of millions were sold to shrieking hoards
of little schoolgirls, and thus Mrs. Rowling has become the owner of vast
wealth. Hundreds of millions, although I see that she denies that she is
actually a billionaire. Is it just me, or am I not alone in thinking that
these childish fairy stories must be pretty worthless?
But then I read that she had published an "adult" book -
titled "The Cuckoo's Calling" - under an obscure pseudonym - Robert
Galbraith - and the few unsuspecting people who happened to read it thought
that it was very impressive. I was in town a couple of days ago, and having
a look in the bookshop, I saw this one. It was her first "adult" book. She
had published it under her own name last year, and I see that it was a
number one best seller. The many blurbs on the cover and on the first few
pages were all ecstatic, so I decided to buy it, thus adding another dollar
or two to Mrs. Rowling's immense wealth.
Well, I enjoyed it. Rather longish at 568 pages. But when
you get into the story then you are swept along, eager to find out what
happens next. Thinking about it, I suppose it is rather like a soap-opera,
going on from week to week, giving us a socially critical view of the
failings and pretenses of people in a small town in the West of England. All
of the characters, except possibly poor Krystal, are a mess, or at least
they have steered their lives into impossibly messy situations.
Is this true "adult" life as it really is? If so, why
does my life, and the lives of the people I know, fail to resemble a
soap-opera? One way or the other, I must admit that in my fantasy I enjoy
the idea of life as a soap-opera, and now that I have finished the book, it
is replaced with a slight feeling of emptiness. Perhaps I'll order The
Cuckoo's Calling in the hope that it is also such an absorbing thing
to read. But still, I refuse to lower myself to the level of Harry Potter!
Well, this certainly isn't a soap-opera. It is a
detective story, I suppose somewhat in the tradition of Agatha Christie, or
what have you. The book starts off with a murder. Then there is a long story
in which the detective interviews one character after the other. Huge
amounts of dialogue. Who is telling the truth, what is being hidden, who has
a motive? And through all of this we gradually learn more and more details
about the scene of the murder. Then at the end of the book, all the logical
loose ends are recounted and it is shown how the complicated, extremely
unlikely and constructed actual murder took place. And the reader is
surprised to find that the murderer was none of the persons we had been lead
to think about as the book progressed.
I'm not really a fan of detective stories. I've never yet
read an Agatha Christie book. But of course I have read some of the stuff of
Raymond Chandler. Is it true that women prefer these logical puzzles,
whereas men prefer hard-hitting action?
As with what I understand the Agatha Christie books to
be, this book deals with murder amongst the extremely rich, monied class of
England. We mere mortals gain our information about these people via the
pictures of the paparazzi, or perhaps stories in women's magazines, or the
"newspapers" of the Murdoch empire. I suppose that the author, being now a
member of this class of people, has herself gained first hand experience of
what they are like. What do they do or say while hiding in some sort of
privacy, before emerging onto the public stage to the clamor of all the
reporters, the flashes of cameras and telephoto lenses? According to J.K.
Rowling's account, in the midst of all their drug taking, swearing (and
extremely excessive use of the f--- word), expensive clothes, chauffeurs,
furniture, assorted hangers-on, and what have you, they are lonely in their
rapacious isolation. Are the people whose faces and figures fill the pages
of women's magazines really as crude as all this? Who knows? Who cares?
Still, Rowling is such a good writer that a story such as
this, as long-winded and contrived as it is, was a most enjoyable read. I
hope that she might settle on a more satisfactory genre for continuing with
her "adult" novels, written under whatever pseudonym she might choose.
The first book of Iris Murdoch which I have read. I only
became aware of her through hearing about a movie which was made (and which
I didn't see), portraying the fact that she was burdened with Alzheimer's
disease in the last years of her life. But I see that as a younger woman, in
her 30s during the 1950s, she was quite free with herself. This led a former
lover, Elias Canetti,
himself the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, to write in extremely
unflattering terms about his former protégé. Perhaps this is relevant
to the present book.
The story is that a theater director, Charles Arrowby,
retires and takes up residence in a derelict house, rotting away on a cliff,
somewhere on the coast of England. He enjoys observing the ocean in its
various moods, and he enjoys swimming off the rocks, despite the fact that
it is often difficult to climb back up the cliffs onto dry land. His pension
seems adequate, if not opulent. At the beginning of the book, he tells us
that he is writing his biography, even though it seems more like a diary. He
reminisces about his various loves in his life in the theater. He has never
married. No children. He seems to be an unpleasant, arrogant character.
Despite this, a motley collection of actors and actresses, his former
lovers, find their way to his house. He tells them to go away, but they keep
telling him that they love him.
But he tells us that he really loves his childhood
sweetheart, Mary Hartley Fitch, who didn't marry him back in the old days,
but instead married Ben Fitch, a virile ex-soldier who was involved in some
act of brutal heroism in the closing stages of World War II. When Charles
bought his retirement house, he was unaware of this. In fact for 40 years he
has been ignorant of the whereabouts of "Hartley", and he simply remembers
the perfection of their lost childhood love. Yet, strangely enough, she and
Ben happen to have also retired to the same obscure English coastal village,
and so Charles meets his childhood sweetheart again. Being an egotist, he
imagines that she wants nothing more than rejoining him in their lost love.
But that is not what she wants. She had already recognized the faults in his
character all those years ago. Charles kidnaps her into his house, with its
strange assortment of theater types, keeping her prisoner in a locked room.
She begs to be released, tears, hysterics. Eventually he does so. All of
this seemingly absurd drama is accompanied with much long-winded
philosophizing about the nature of love and marriage. The book ends with
Charles's cousin, James, who has taken up Buddhism, first of all performing
some sort of magical act, levitating himself around the cliffs and thus
saving Charles's life, presumably through the sheer force of magical
Buddhist meditation. Then, at the end, James, who has become a rich member
of the the British military class, retired in London, commits suicide not by
shooting himself with his service revolver, or falling on his sword, but
rather by sitting calmly in an armchair and meditating on beauty, thus
achieving the transcendental state of Nirvana, floating serenely out of this
world, leaving his body peacefully behind.
Of course these excursions into Buddhist nonsense tended
to spoil the story for me. And all of the philosophizing about love seemed
to be leading nowhere. After all, what is love, marriage? What is the point
of it without children? It seems to me that a book like this, almost
wholly devoted to the question of the nature of love, yet where the natural
product of love, namely a family with children, is entirely absent, simply
makes no sense. Despite living a life of "free love" with many lovers, Iris
Murdoch remained barren. This seems to be becoming the norm in the modern
world. And thus I suppose this book describes the lives of many people
today, hectically seeking an empty fulfillment and thinking that that is
There is a very nice video
which you can watch in which Richard Dawkins responds to a visit of the
German Pope to England. The Pope had earlier uttered the absurd assertion -
for reasons one can only speculate about - that the evils of Nazism were due
to Atheism. Dawkins demolishes such nonsense.
Although Dawkins is a biologist, his role in life seems
to be to combat the forces of ignorance, trying to reason with unreasonable
people. And thus this book - whose purpose is to explain how the almost
unbelievably complicated mechanisms met with in the living world can be
understood as the end result of small steps of evolution - often goes off on
lengthy, rather folksy tangents, aimed at these people. So I found myself
skipping quickly over large sections of the book, looking for what he really
wanted to tell us.
The book was first published in 1986, at a time when I
also spent lots of time playing around with the simple home computers of
those days. We fiddled about with BASIC, and if we wanted to pretend that we
were being sophisticated, then we wrote things in PASCAL. I see that Richard
Dawkins also caught the computing bug back then, and he includes a chapter
or two in which he proudly presents us with some pictures his little BASIC
program produced, illustrating how complexity can arise out of simplicity.
But I did find his chapter on the origins of life to be
interesting. Once some self-reproducing cell exists, then everything goes
ahead along the path to complexity. But how does that original, unique
"ur"-cell come into existence? As far as I'm concerned, I think that the
universe has existed forever, and thus there has been infinitely much time
for life to appear. That would mean that life would be everywhere where it
could possibly be. Panspermia.
But if we suppose that the theory of panspermia does not apply to
life on the Earth, then what possible mechanism would apply? Dawkins first
considers the question of how improbable is improbable? For example if there
are trillions, quadrillions, or even higher decimal powers of possible
earth-like planets in the observable universe, then if our Earth is the only
planet in the whole universe which happened to spawn life, it follows that
something like the origin of life, which has a probability of only one to a
quadrillion or something, might reasonably turn up, namely on our unique
little Earth here alone in the whole universe.
So how could such an ur-cell develop on the Earth out of
inanimate matter? To begin with, he observes that crystals grow by adding
atoms on to their surfaces in a duplication of the crystal structure. But
then the crystal structure might have imperfections. These are also
reproduced by the growing crystal. Perhaps certain patterns of imperfections
may be more likely to spawn further copies of themselves, for example by
influencing the flow of fluids containing the atoms for building more of the
crystals. And then that will lead to an evolution of crystal imperfections.
Maybe based on silicon. Then maybe these evolved silicon crystals with
imperfections gradually incorporate carbon into their crystal structures,
and then gradually the carbon takes over.
Well, OK. Given that we are talking about a one in a
quadrillion, or gazillion, or something, chance, and even then, the Earth
had almost a billion years to get going with this whole thing, then I
suppose the argument is plausible. But for me, knowing that the universe is
eternal, the theory of panspermia seems much more sensible.
Dawkins also devotes a chapter to the question of
why it is that in some species of animals, the male has some ridiculous
structures for making an extravagant display in order to attract the
females. We see this particularly in birds. The males might have totally
elongated tail feathers. Or they might have bright colors. So they are easy
prey for their predators. Yet the females always have sensible forms. Why is
this? There is an interesting argument showing how this seemingly irrational
product comes about. It starts off with the observation that in such
species, only a few of the males each mate with many females. Such
successful males take the females they can get. On the other hand, the
females can choose which males they prefer to mate with. And so on. It is a
complicated argument, too long to describe here...
But just thinking about how unimaginably complicated life
is, it seems a miracle that it does actually exist. We are nothing but big
blobs consisting of huge numbers of cells, all stuck together. Yet it all
works, almost perfectly, performing more functions than anybody can imagine.
I can hardly believe that I am alive!
A true story of extreme, almost absurd danger, and
survival against all odds on a mountain in South America.
Well..., OK. It is nice to be in the mountains.
The air is clear and fresh. And you feel good after a couple of hours of
strenuous walking, climbing up a thousand meters or so. It's great to reach
the top, admire the view and have the feeling that you have accomplished
We traveled to Nepal last autumn and walked around the
mountains there, staying in comfortable lodges. The highest point of the
trek was about 5000 meters. Just a gentle hilltop, surrounded by high, snow
covered peaks, towering thousands of meters above us. Mt. Everest was not
far away. An impressive sight, but not a pleasant goal, as far as I could
see. Apparently the top is littered with the corpses of dead climbers who
did not make it up and back. Climbing Mt. Everest is literally a matter of
stepping over corpses.
But still, 5000 meters was nothing, just an afternoon
walk, and so I began to fantasize about climbing a bit higher. In a certain
sense, the highest mountain in the world is not Everest. Rather it is Chimborazo
in the Andes of Ecuador. The fact of the matter is that due to the
centrifugal force of the Earth's rotation, the distance from the center of
the Earth to sea-level is about 21 kilometers greater at the equator in
comparison with the distance at the poles. And thus, since Chimborazo, at
6300 meters, is situated almost directly on the equator, we find that its
summit is the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the middle
point of the Earth. Further than the summit of Mt. Everest, even though it
is over 2 1/2 kilometers lower when measured with respect to sea-level, and
thus also with respect to atmospheric pressure. So it seemed to me that that
would be a wonderful mountain to try to climb. An adventure. Undoubtedly
strenuous, but possible even for an old man such as I am. No unpleasant
climbing over corpses. An elegant mountain with an interesting history. Also
the German Alpine Club organizes tours to the mountain, staying in very
comfortable detached lodges at a height of 4000 meters on the slopes of the
mountain to allow for good altitude acclimatisation.
A precondition for the tour is that participants should
be experienced climbers, or, failing that, one should take part in a course
in the Alps in order to become acquainted with the basics of climbing on
glaciers. So I did that a couple of weeks ago. Two summer days on a glacier
with an intense sun reflecting off the snow and ice. The first day was on
slushy snow, roped together. The problem with glacial snow is that it might
be hiding a crevasse. But to be quite honest, I hate snow. We have had too
much snow in the last few winters here. And the last time I was skiing, I
found that the slopes were crowded with people who seemed to be half out of
control of themselves, going too fast, and wearing helmets, thus protecting
themselves but presenting an even greater danger to the people they were
So for me, walking along, roped up, for hours through
slushy snow on the glacier in the hot sun was unpleasant, and my backpack
began to give me a biting backache. Above us was a "Seilschaft" (a line of
climbers roped together) walking up the snow to the summit of the Wildspitze.
What a tedious business it seemed. I was thankful that we didn't have to
spend so many hours in this wet snow under the hot sun. The next day we went
over to a part of the glacier which was relatively free of snow. That was
more fun. Glacial ice lets you get a nice grip with the crampons. It is easy
to walk on it. And even steep slopes are simple to walk and climb on. So at
least now I know what an ice screw is. And how you are supposed to hold the
ice pick. Our guide and instructor gave each of us a booklet of 140 pages,
entitled "Know-how am Berg". About 80 pages are devoted to tying all kinds
of knots. It is really just a book of knots. He demonstrated a few of them
for us. In particular, the Prusik
hitch plays a role in this book of Joe Simpson.
The story is that Simpson, together with his partner, Simon
Yates, decided to climb the Siula
Grande - which is a mountain in Peru - not along the easiest, most
logical route, but rather up an extremely difficult and steep face. Part of
the problem with an obscure mountain like this, situated in a country like
Peru, is that if you get into difficulties there are no helicopters as in
the Alps, or helpful Sherpa as in the Himalayas to come and rescue you.
Simpson and Yates, together with a casual acquaintance, Richard, whom they
happened to meet in Lima and who agreed to sit in their base camp for a week
while they were away, were days away from civilization, which could only be
reached after a long donkey ride.
Reading the book, we appreciate that the ascent was
terrible. Somehow, the whole idea of these kinds of books seems absurd.
People putting themselves into horribly dangerous situations, involving
unimaginable degrees of physical and mental suffering. Why do we read such
things? Is it in order to contrast our situation, sitting comfortably in an
armchair, reading all this stuff about the mess they are in, and then to
reflect with pleasure on the fact that we are - thankfully - not there? If
so, then the fascinated reader soon reaches the part where the descent
begins. Simpson falls through a pile of snow up near the summit, breaking
his leg. We then read of the heroic efforts of Yates to help him down the
mountain. Then comes the true catastrophe. Yates is forced to cut the rope;
Simpson falls into a huge crevasse; he is left for dead; Yates is himself
near the limit of his endurance; Simpson saves himself against all odds by lowering
himself down even further into the crevasse; he crawls for miles down
dangerous, broken ice fields and finally arrives at the base camp, as near
to death as it is possible to get without actually dying. What a dreadful
I have also been reading Edward Whymper's account of his
first ascent of Chimborazo - and various other Ecuadorian mountains - in the
year 1880. (Whymper led the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865.)
Whymper's detached, matter-of-fact Victorian writing is a pleasant contrast
with these hysterical modern mountain books. He was enjoying the views,
collecting the insects, studying the geology of the area. His goal was
simply to make it to the top. Not to get himself and others into a situation
where the chances of survival are nearly nil, and then, through pure chance,
to survive, and to write a book about it.
Both Whymper and Simpson devote large sections of their
books to the fact that the weather in the Andes is dreadful. Reading these
books makes me think that perhaps the discomfort of this proposed trip to
Ecuador might outweigh whatever possible enjoyment it might bring.
Whymper spent about six months in Ecuador - the first
half of the year 1880 - accompanied by his guide, Jean-Antoine Carrel,
together with the cousin, Louis Carrel. He climbed Chimborazo twice, once at
the beginning, and the second time at the end of his stay. In the meantime,
he made first ascents of most of the other highest mountains in Ecuador and
collected lots of biological, mineralogical and ethnological specimens of
the things to be found there. It was a beautifully produced book back then
in 1892, and a fascinating read about what life was like. Many dramatic
When following the link, it is only sensible to read the
book online with a couple of degrees of magnification. It appears that this
is the copy of the book held by the University of California at Berkeley,
and while it was scanned to high resolution, the pdf file which you can
download is of such low resolution as to be unreadable. The book is offered
in other formats too: EPUB, Kindle, and so forth. The text appears to have
simply been obtained using some sort of text recognition program, but the
people at the library did not take the trouble to check the fact that
nothing but pure gobbledygook came out.
Edward Whymper was particularly interested in the effects
of altitude on the human body. His theory was that the immediate cause of
high altitude sickness was the fact that the gasses in the body needed to
escape at low pressure. Rather like the bends during rapid decompression of
divers. I suppose that modern medicine would dispute this hypothesis. In any
case, Whymper continuously kept track of his temperature, heart rate, rate
of breathing, and what have you. In one passage of the book he describes an
experiment in which he determines his rate of walking at altitude in
comparison with that measured at lower altitudes. He says that in both cases
he was relatively heavily dressed and wearing heavy mountain boots. On page
300 of the book he gives a table, showing the times he took to walk 7 miles,
mile for mile, in London, and at about 10,000 feet above sea level in
Ecuador. His London times were about 11 minutes per mile, and those in
Ecuador were increased by about one minute to something over 12 minutes.
This seems to me to be very fast! Therefore yesterday, after reading that
passage, I decided to put on my trekking shoes, but only wearing light
clothes, and carrying our GPS navigator I determined my rate of walking.
Well. I became pretty exhausted after only about 7 kilometers
of rapid walking. I was passing all other pedestrians (who admittedly were
mostly old people, walking their dogs), and I think I was walking
sufficiently rapidly to make them wonder why I was trying to go so fast.
Looking at the "trip computer" of the GPS, I see that my average speed was
only 5.7 km/hour. Or put another way, this was 10.5 minutes per kilometer!
Given that a mile is about 1.61 kilometers, I find Edward Whymper's walking
speed to be absolutely incredible! All the more reason to admire him.
These William Boyd novels are always fun to read. And
this was certainly no exception. As always it is a spy novel, this time set
in the First World War. But it starts off with the hero, Lysander Rief, in
Vienna, in 1913, being psychoanalyzed by an English doctor, resident in the
city, who is a disciple - more or less - of Sigmund Freud. The name Lysander
seems more than unusual. It reminds me of the English
spy plane of World War Two. But our Lysander is a Shakespearean actor
of the London stage who has an embarrassing, innermost secret which he
divulges to his psychotherapist, Dr. Bensimon. Another one of Dr. Bensimon's
patients is the mysterious, attractive, young Hettie Bull. She soon cures
Lysander of his problem, and in the process, apparently, becomes pregnant.
But out of fear of her boyfriend, Udo Hoff, the Bohemian artist from an
established and well-connected Austrian family, Hettie accuses Lysander of
raping her. Thus he is thrown into an Austrian jail. He is saved by two
mysterious figures from the British Embassy in Vienna who aid him in an
escape to Trieste, and then across to Italy.
Then along comes World War One, and suddenly all these
characters take over his life. Even his mother, an Austrian who had migrated
to England many years before and was also an actress, seems to be involved.
Somebody - a mole in the War Office in London - is sending the Germans and
Austrians secret information. Lysander must find out who it is. He is first
sent over to Geneva where he meets the recipient of the coded letters,
seeking the key which would enable them to be decoded. He applies a short
but horrible torture, and the poor man tells Lysander the secret before
expiring with an apparent heart attack.
Back in London he is assigned to the relevant department
of the War Office and he begins his search for the mole. The search quickly
concentrates on just one or two possible candidates. But then who is behind
the mole? Could it be his minders, those two from the Embassy in Vienna? Or
even his mother? And then Hettie Bull suddenly turns up in London. She has
dumped Udo Hoff, but she has left her baby son, Lothar - assuming he exists
at all - with the Hoff family in Vienna, and she has apparently married
somebody else who is with her in a cottage in Cornwall. She throws herself
at Lysander, telling him how much she still loves him. In the end we have at
least a partial resolution of the whole affair. Nevertheless, Miss Bull
remains an intriguing mystery.
A very sentimental story. Harold Fry, a retired man who
lives in a village at the south end of England, in Devon, receives a letter
saying hello, and telling him that the sender, a woman named Queenie
Hennessy, is in a hospice in the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, at the north
end of England, dying from cancer. So he sets off to post a reply, but then
just keeps on going with the aim of walking the whole way to her in the hope
that he will thereby save her life.
Along the way he tells us the story of his life and of
the dreadful mess his marriage has become. His wife Maureen is at first
angry, bitter. But through all the tears and the things he tells us between
his sobs we gradually understand what his problem is. And Maureen realizes
that she, not Harold, is the problem. At the end, Harold makes it into
Berwick-upon-Tweed, half dead, still refusing to wear proper hiking shoes, a
changed man. He does not "save" Queenie, who expires soon after he sees her.
But Maureen, herself a changed woman, has driven up to Berwick-upon-Tweed to
pick up Harold and bring him home, to start life afresh, amidst tears of
So this book is all about wasted lives, and death. A
depressing business. The idea is that people can work their way into some
hopeless emotional state, refusing to see a way out, becoming closed to
everyone around them. Enveloped in bitterness rather than love. In the
middle of his pilgrimage Harold was joined by a crowd of people, all
suffering from this sickness. It becomes a circus, leading nowhere. Harold
and Maureen emerge renewed, but we suspect that the other members of the
circus received little benefit.
After making my way to the end of this book it seemed to
me that the path to a meaningful and fulfilled life should involve walking
towards something of true value rather than simply trying to walk away from
your problems. Unfortunately, in the case of Harold Fry this was blocked by
what had happened in his marriage. So his walk was a matter of breaking away
from a hopeless situation.
Shlomo Sand is a professor of history at the University
of Tel Aviv in Israel, and thus this book was written in the Hebrew
language. I wanted to get the English translation, but the German version of
Amazon was only offering it at a very inflated price, with much delay. And
so I got the German translation in paperback. But the translator seems to
have felt obliged to adhere to the tradition of Germanic scholarly writings,
producing long, convoluted sentences, consisting of numerous sub-sentences,
concluding a number of lines further down the page with the subject, or the
object, or something, of the sentence, which we had forgotten about by the
time we reached that point. So I found it difficult to wade through the
book. Still, given the history of the "Jewish People" - a concept which
Shlomo Sand maintains doesn't exist - this German translation may be the
more appropriate one.
There is a somewhat critical review of the book by an
English Rabbi in the Guardian here,
and a review of another book by Shlomo Sand, also in the Guardian, expanding
on the theme here.
At first I thought I would write down all the things which are filling my
mind after reading the book, but on second thoughts decided against it. The
fact is that history, the myths people tell one another, is often the cause
of conflicts, suffering. And surely one of the worst sources of these myths,
not only for the Jewish people, but for Christians and Muslims as well, has
been the bible. Shlomo Sand does a very good job of debunking such things.
And he shows the obvious fact that the Palestinians have as much claim as
anyone else to be descended from the people who inhabited Palestine in
biblical times. In an ideal world, there would be peace in the Middle East.
Unfortunately the world is not ideal. But perhaps it could be gradually
moved in that direction by historians such as Shlomo Sand.
P.S. Only after writing this have I discovered that the English translation
of the book can be freely downloaded here.
The subtitle of the book is: "What if Kennedy survived
So it's a kind of novel, or alternative history. I'm a
great fan of all those internet sites which investigate the question of who,
and how, and why John Kennedy was killed. Is it true that with Kennedy's
murder back in 1963, a shift in the forces controlling the USA, some sort of
coup by the CIA or whatever, took place? With all the recent revelations
about the eavesdropping on all of us by the NSA, how are we to doubt it? It
almost seems as if America is on the path to becoming a country controlled
by the secret police, rather like communist East Germany, or the Soviet
This book describes another world with a happier
continuation out of 1963. The secret service agent in the car behind the
Kennedys notices a glint of steel in the open window of the School Book
Depository as the motorcade turns into Elm Street in Dallas. It was a gun,
perhaps held by Lee Oswald - who after all was
a decent marksman - or more likely held by an expert Mafia or CIA
sniper using a more sensible weapon than the Mannlicher Carcano rifle which
was later found by the police. In the book, the heroic secret service agent
runs quickly to the presidential limousine, throwing himself on top of JFK
and holding Jackie down as well. The volley of bullets from all directions
kills the agent, and Governor Connally as well. But the presidential pair
So what happens from there? According to the book, the
country enters a phase of shocked turmoil, lasting for months. Yet this
seems to me to be implausible. After all, we had that silly old fool, Ronald
Reagan, being shot by the would-be assassin, John Hinkley Jr. on March 30,
1981, shortly after Reagan had been inagurated for his first term in office.
The Hinkley family were tied
in various ways to the George H.W. Bush family, and the behavior of
John Hinkley Jr. seemed to exhibit all the hallmarks of someone who had been
subjected to the MKUltra
program of the CIA. Did the population of the USA enter into a phase
of shocked turmoil following this act? No. The press downplayed everything -
after all, Reagan survived - and the people quickly went back to sleep. Ho
Hum. Who cares?
And so I am sure that if Kennedy's assassins had missed
in Dallas, then the news would have quickly sunk beneath the daily deluge of
celebrity chit chat and scandal. Nobody would have cared.
Life would have gone on, and according to the book,
Kennedy would have made his mark on the subsequent development of history.
For one thing, according to the book, the nation would have been spared the
Vietnam mess. But - according to the book - he would not have succeeded in
getting rid of the CIA, the NSA, and all those other secret police divisions
with their ugly three letter abbreviations. Instead they would have soon
gotten rid of him, not according to the original plan whereby Kennedy was
gunned down in broad daylight for everybody - and very particularly for all
future presidents - to see, but rather by the gentler means of impeachment.
And if anybody was wide open for impeachment, surely it
was Kennedy. Not only in the book, but in the real world as well. Why is it
that women threw themselves at JFK? I suppose that for many women in those
days, he was the greatest sex symbol of all times. And his appetite for all
those women was enormous. He just used them as he wanted, and then threw
them away. All of the Kennedys were like that. His father as well. And his
brothers. J Edgar Hoover kept detailed files, for later use. For example
there was Ellen Rometsch, who was probably an East German spy. Or Judith
Exner, who was sent to him by the Mafia. And indeed, Marilyn Monroe. A very
labile person. A very dangerous situation for her to be caught up with such
people as the Kennedys.
So the story of the book describes a plausible
alternative history in which JFK fires J Edgar Hoover, and Hoover sees to it
that the moral degeneracy of the Kennedys becomes common knowledge. Thus
Kennedy is impeached and removed from office. But before that, LBJ, an even
more degenerate person than the Kennedys, is himself removed from office and
thrown into (a comfortable) prison. So the Speaker of the House succeeds to
the presidency and pardons JFK. Jackie divorces him, but, according to the
story, John turns over a new leaf and becomes a respectable person. They get
back together again and live happily ever after, or at least until JFK's
untimely death at the age of 60 or something, due to his general ill health
and drug taking.
In November of 1963 I was 16 years old. Unlike George
H.W. Bush, I can remember exactly where I was when I heard the news of JFK's
assassination. Is the real world any worse than the imagined world which
would have developed in the last fifty years if Kennedy had survived Dallas?
Of course if the Vietnam War had been avoided, many things would have turned
out for the better. But on the other hand it is true that no atomic bombs
have been used in warfare in the last 50 years. Back in 1963, that seemed to
be an extremely unlikely fate for the world. These days nobody thinks about
all the thousands of atomic bombs which are stashed away for future use. The
impact of a harmless meteorite over Russia has been compared to an atomic
bomb. And so I can well imagine that in the next 50 years a number of cities
will be casually annihilated by an unthinking, overeager military. But a
massive, euphoric religious catharsis, in which a major portion of humanity
is burned in a huge atomic holocaust, as envisaged by those old cold-war
warriors, seems unlikely. And as for the secret police, even in the story of
the book, they succeed in getting rid of Kennedy and controlling the
government of the United States. But I am optimistic. Like the Berlin Wall,
they have only existed for a much shorter time than we imagine. Back in the
1970s and 80s, people thought that the Wall would last forever. Yet in
reality it lasted less than 30 years. The CIA, which was a product of the
Second World War, has lasted longer than that. But still it is only 60 or 70
years old, and the disgusting practices it has indulged in have become more
and more exposed. I can imagine that it might soon, unexpectedly, collapse
under its own weight of corruption and decay.
According to the Wikipedia
article on the book, this was Hardy's own personal favorite. As
always, it is concerned with a marriage which has gone wrong. And again, as
always, it takes place in the imagined, romantic rural England of Hardy's
Wessex, some time in the 19th century. This time the marriage is between
Grace, the daughter of the owner of a lumber mill, situated in the backwoods
of Wessex, and the young doctor, Fitzpiers, who, for some obscure reason,
has decided to try to build up a medical practice in the woods.
Grace's father, while being a simply educated timber
merchant, has sufficient money to have Grace sent to all the best schools,
and so she returns to the village with high hopes of a graceful life. She
The local squire had died, leaving his young, attractive
widow, Mrs. Charmond, a former actress, in charge of things. Fitzpiers, who
traces his ancestry to some ancient but decayed local aristocracy, takes his
money from Grace's father, but, when considering Mrs. Charmond with all her
wealth and airs, he realizes that he has married the wrong woman. This leads
to all of the usual catastrophes which we expect to find in a Thomas Hardy
novel. I very much enjoyed it.
The story takes place in the summer of 1976 in England
and Ireland. Everything is totally hot and dry. I can't remember what the
weather was like back then. I do remember that the summer of 1975, when I
first arrived here in Germany, was at first cool, but then it became very
hot as well. At the moment everything here is cold and wet. Even this last
summer was too cold and wet, as it has been for the past few years. Somehow
it seems to me that the weather was more warm and pleasant 30 or 40 years
ago when all those climate people were hysterically telling us that the next
ice age is upon us. That was much better than the present situation where
the weather is cold and we are hysterically being told that the Earth is
dying a heat-death.
But this book is not really concerned with climate
studies, or ideas about what to do in order to combat them, or their
consequences. Instead it is concerned with a family in England where the
parents immigrated from Ireland, I suppose some time in the 1940s or 50s, in
order to find work. They were treated badly by the English. The children
have now grown up and gotten on with their own lives, not really thinking
about this Irish background. The parents have given their youngest daughter
a crazy name, namely "Aoife". This is apparently the Irish spelling of the
common name "Eve". With a name like that, she has great problems in life.
Despite years of schooling, she remains unable to read. When she sees
written words, her vision becomes incoherent. The letters swim about,
reordering themselves, moving from place to place. I find it difficult to
imagine this, but apparently it is a phenomenon which is not so very
uncommon. She has removed herself from the family and is currently living in
New York, working as a photographers assistant. There is another daughter,
and also a son, both of which have great problems in their lives. But the
immediate thing that has happened in this heatwave is that the father has
So the family gets together - reluctantly - and thinks
about where he might have gone. In fact he has gone back to his dying
brother in Ireland who had spent many years in prison, falsely accused of
murdering a policeman, and who everybody thought was long since deceased. We
learn about the great secret of the marriage of the parents. And the
children resolve their problems. Throughout all of the drama we find Aoife
to be the most attractive person, despite stumbling over the name each time
we see it. It was a good read. Much to be recommended.
by William Boyd
This book is subtitled: "A James Bond Novel". That whole
James Bond business got completely out of hand with those Hollywood movies,
turning it into some sort of "science" fiction, or fantasy business for
adolescents. Only occasionally disturbed by a few ridiculous attempts to
introduce some sort of irrational plot or other into the "action". Well, as
an adolescent I did go to the movies back then in the 1960s and watch Dr.
No, and Goldfinger. Weren't we all inspired by Sean Connery's elegant
attire, and especially his Aston Martin, cruising beautifully through the
Alps? I did see the Peter Sellers spoof of Casino Royale. But then all of
those other movies keep turning up on television. I've tried to sit through
one or the other of them, but after a few minutes I just give up, switching
the channel, or turning the TV off.
Back then in the adolescent 1960s I did read a couple of
the James Bond novels. I can only remember what they were like in the
vaguest possible terms. At the back of the present book there is a list of
all of the books Ian Fleming wrote; it's surprising how long it is. Anyway,
the present book is an attempt by William Boyd to write a new book as if it
were just another of the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming. I've enjoyed
reading numbers of William Boyd's spy novels, and so I was hoping that this
one might be equally good. But it wasn't. The fact of the matter is that
William Boyd is a much better writer than was Ian Fleming, and Boyd's
attempt to reduce things to Fleming's level simply produces a
Fleming had determined that James Bond was born in 1924,
and thus in order to produce a story which is not completely dated, and yet
in which James Bond has not yet reached the geriatric stage of life, Boyd
places things in the year 1969, where Bond is 45 years old. Well, OK. Given
that he keeps himself fit by regular exercise, then I suppose he could
perform some of the feats described, such as single-handedly and unarmed,
smashing three youthful Washington DC muggers to smithereens on a dark
street at night. After all, in the real world, some champion boxers have
retained their world titles beyond the age of 40.
The story itself is concerned with James Bond traveling
to a West African country where a civil war is happening, smuggling himself
into the rebellious province, causing disruption and thus ending the war to
the benefit of everybody. This story is obviously a rather sick parody on
the tragic civil war in Nigeria, where Biafra attempted to establish itself
as an independent country. The reality is that many of the countries in
Africa, such as Nigeria, are monstrosities, created by the European colonial
powers (and very particularly England) of the 19th century, drawing lines on
maps in ignorance of the actual situation of the peoples living there. I am
sure it is true that secret agents were sent by those colonial powers into
those countries even after they had gained independence. And even now,
France regularly sends its military into Africa. The latest adventure has to
do with suppressing the Tuareg peoples. Therefore I was rather repelled by
William Boyd's attempt to reproduce Fleming's snobbish cynicism here.
The African part of the story leaves numbers of loose
ends dangling about, and so the story continues with Bond traveling secretly
to Washington where he finds that his sexual partner in Africa was, in fact,
a CIA agent. They continue their coupling in a motel while the plot
develops. The girl - or rather woman, as she is now a mature end 30s
something, in order to be on a par with Bond's 45 years of age - is horribly
murdered, and Bond takes his revenge. In the end we discover that it is all
about a ring of people smuggling heroin into the USA, and their being
pursued by the CIA.
How ridiculous! It is common knowledge that the CIA is
itself involved in large-scale drug smuggling. Look at the drug smuggling in
scandal. Or the Mena
Airport business in Arkansas during the Bill Clinton years. And as far
as heroin is concerned, one need only glance at the graph of opium
poppy production in Afghanistan. There was a crisis in the year 2001
when production dropped to nearly zero. How convenient it was that the
"coalition of the willing" invaded the country in 2002, enabling production
to reach unprecedented new highs.
But I see that the English reviewers of the book were
very positive. In the same way, reading today's newspaper, I see that the
rest of the English press is coming down like a ton of bricks on the
Guardian newspaper for their publishing of Edward Snowdon's revelations
concerning the secret police of England. All of this is far removed from the
naïve juvenile romanticism of the James Bond of the 1950s and 60s.
It was at first difficult to get into the story. The book
starts out with a number of disjointed chapters, describing various things
in various ways with lots of dialogue seemingly unrelated to the dialogue we
had just gone through in the previous chapter. Lots of names to remember.
What relationships do all these characters have to one another? Is it
necessary to draw some sort of tedious diagram just to keep track of things?
But after 50 or 100 pages, the story gradually becomes
clear. It is a "Who done it?..." murder mystery, following the classical
tradition. We have an ancient manor house (or in this case an expansive
minor house next to the true manor) set in the English countryside, filled
with a collection of strange people, one of which has been murdered. So the
question is... who done it? The story is told mainly through the perspective
of Gaby, who wasn't in the house at the time of the murder, but who
nevertheless has intimate relations with the people who were, and also we
have the viewpoints of the various police men and women.
The situation is that one of the people, namely Tim, has
confessed to the murder, but neither Gaby nor most of the police believe
that Tim did it. So why is Tim sitting happily in a prison cell, apparently
being punished for something he didn't do? The murder victim was Tim's wife,
Lauren, who has suffered a stroke and was then suffering from "locked-in"
syndrome. A human vegetable, unable to move or communicate. A horrible
thing. Did Tim do it in order to release Lauren from her suffering?
But we gradually learn that before she had her stroke,
Lauren was a monster, terrorizing Tim and everybody else with her psycho
tricks, making life a misery for everybody around her. We learn that Gaby
was, and still is, totally in love with Tim, and also Tim was and is in love
with Gaby, even before he married the horrible Lauren. So why did he marry
Lauren in the first place, rather than Gaby? This question wasn't really
answered in the book, except perhaps by saying that Tim was himself a weak,
distorted, and totally inadequate personality.
I suppose the idea of these murder mysteries is to play
around with all sorts of psychological thoughts involving a closed group of
people - and also with the psychology of the various personalities in the
police department who must investigate the crime. Are people really like
For me, the relationships between Gaby, Tim and Lauren
seemed to be absurdly implausible.
To me, this was a more satisfying book than The Kite
Runner. I haven't read Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns,
which came between the Kite Runner and this one.
Of course all of Hosseini's books are concerned with
Afghanistan. He himself left Afghanistan as a child, immigrating with his
well-to-do parents to the USA where he is now a citizen. Nevertheless, we
have the feeling that he thinks of himself as an Afghan, rather than an
American. After all, otherwise his novels would be concerned with life in
For the USA, Afghanistan is a big problem. The first
narrative we had was that that modern day, Arabian, Emmanuel Goldstein (of
Orwell's 1984 fame), that is to say, Osama Bin Laden, was holed up
in Afghanistan in a cave, or something, and we had to "git 'em", "smoke 'em
out", in the immortal words of George W. Bush. So the country was bombed to
smithereens, and "our side", namely the war lords of the Northern Alliance,
triumphed over the evil Islamic Taliban. Unfortunately though, our Emmanuel
Goldstein drifted into a place called "Tora Bora" - which sounds to me more
like a peaceful South Pacific island - and then into the wild Tribal Lands
of Western Pakistan. The impotent George W. Bush, and his even more impotent
successor, Obama, thus resorted to the weapons of the cowardly, namely
unmanned drones. All this is undoubtedly stirring up even more trouble than
before, which may be good for the purveyors of the "War on Terror", but it
is certainly bad for all the rest of us.
The second narrative was that the situation in
Afghanistan is rather like the novel Lord of the Flies, by William
Golding. According to this second narrative, when left to their own in
isolation, the people of Afghanistan degenerate into violent, evil behavior.
Women must cover themselves in their degrading burkas. They are raped,
beaten, forced to cower in their hovels, illiterate. Men, when not
tormenting women, arm themselves with rifles, bayonets, knives. They fight
amongst themselves and generally fill their minds with religious
intolerance. And thus, as in the happy ending of the Lord of the Flies, the
Grownups, represented here by the USA, have the difficult role of bringing
law and order into this chaos.
I had the feeling that in The Kite Runner, Hosseini, as a
citizen of the USA, was - at least to some degree - telling us this second
narrative. It was an overwhelming emotional outburst. But despite this, the
idea of the USA playing the role of the Grownups of the world seemed to me
to be absurd.
The present book starts out in the 1940s and 50s when
neither the Russians, nor the Americans, nor the Taliban were causing
trouble. (Admittedly, The Kite Runner also starts off in this bygone era of
peace and hope.) We find a civilized Afghanistan, with families going on
about their business, undisturbed by the evil intentions of outsiders. A
lonely, well-to-do man, living in a generous house in Kabul, has secret
homosexual feelings, longing for his chauffeur. But the chauffeur is totally
unaware of this. The man marries an elegant young woman from an even more
well-to-do family. But the woman has had an illness, rendering her incapable
of having children. She has great literary ambitions. She is lonely in this
elegant, meaningless, sheltered, too civilized life of Kabul. The chauffeur
secretly loves her, and perhaps she also loves him a little. In order to
help her fill the emptiness of her life, the chauffeur suggests that she
adopt a small girl, Pari, his niece, who lives in poverty in a village some
distance from Kabul. And so Pari begins growing up with her new family and
loses all memory of the old. Her new "mother" moves with her to Paris, where
Pari lives the life of a French woman, becoming a professor of mathematics
in a Parisian university. Her mother gradually discards Pari and becomes an
important figure in the Paris literary scene. Back in Kabul, the lonely man
has a stroke and, after years of lingering on, dies, bequeathing everything
to his chauffeur who lives in the house, enduring the Russians, the
Americans and the Taliban. Pari's lost family from the village has been
scattered to refugee camps in Pakistan. Some return to find things stolen by
a violent War Lord whose riches are based on opium.
And so the book tells the stories of all of these people
and their children, as they grow old. In the end, Pari finds what is left of
her real family. The tragedy of Afghanistan has scattered some of them
across California and Europe. A deep, absorbing novel.
by Robert Louis Stevenson
I had run out of things to read. Rather than going into
town to look for something in the bookshop, through all this gray winter
drizzle, facing the crowds of Christmas shoppers, I thought the simplest
plan would be to just click into Gutenberg.org and find something there to
read on my Kindle. Robert Louis Stevenson is always good, and this book was
entitled "David Balfour, Second Part". This sounded new to me, and I didn't
know what "David Balfour, First Part" was either. So I started reading it.
(Just assuming that it was OK to skip the unknown First Part.)
The good thing about the Kindle is that you can select a
comfortable level of magnification, for old people with bad eyes, such as
me. The bad thing is that footnotes are very awkward to deal with on the
Kindle. You can't just glance down quickly to the bottom of the page and
then resume reading after satisfying that momentary instant of curiosity.
Instead it's a complicated operation which disrupts the story, spending lots
of time searching around for where to resume things in the text. Or if the
notes are in the back of the book, perhaps in a glossary, then the Kindle is
utterly hopeless. Not like a real book where you can just keep your finger
on the page while flipping to the back for a quick look.
This was a problem in the present instance owing to the
fact that the book is filled with the dialogue of various Scottish
characters, speaking their partially incomprehensible local dialect of the
English language. In order to convey this local color, Stevenson created a
kind of Pidgin English containing hundreds of words which - I presume - are
not found in the OED. (Or maybe they do include them, since they are
included in this book.) Thus the Kindle edition which I was reading was
filled with footnotes, undoubtedly giving, in each case, the relevant
translation into terms comprehensible to normal people like me. I just tried
pushing through, trying to ignore the incomprehensible words and their
footnotes, hoping to gain a vague idea of the gist of the dialogue.
The book seemed familiar in a forgotten sort of way. I
soon realized that the real title of the book is "Catriona", and not "David
Balfour, Second Part". It is a mystery to me why the Gutenberg people
publish it under this title. In fact the book itself has two parts. The
first part, which might be absurdly called "David Balfour, Second Part: The
First Part", is a kind of boy's adventure story. Then the Second Part is the
love story of David Balfour and Catriona, which was very nice to read.
By the time I got to the second part I began to think I
had read all of this before. Searching around the bookshelves here in my
study, stirring up clouds of old dust, I discovered my copy of Catriona in
its pristine condition, protected by its slipcover, beautifully produced by
the Folio Society back in 1988. And near it on the same shelf was the
companion volume of "Kidnapped", also produced back then, and which I
suppose Gutenberg.org must refer to as "David Balfour, First Part". I had
completely forgotten them. So you see, it is helpful to make a note of what
you read, as here, in order to be able to refer back to it in future years
when the memory fades. From this little experience, it would seem that my
memory for such things only lasts about 25 years.
And so I (re-)read the book to its end on real paper, but
without footnotes, which the Folio Society doesn't really approve of.
Instead they included a glossary at the end which you can easily refer to,
keeping your place by holding a finger on the page. Unfortunately they chose
a rather small typeface when they produced the book in 1988, which I'm sure
was no problem for me back then, but now I had to use my other reading
glasses which are better for looking more closely at things. Also the Folio
Society edition has a very informative Introduction, explaining much about
the historical setting for the story.
Day, by David Nicholls
This is a very sentimental love story. From the blurbs on
the cover of this paperback edition, the reviewers all seem to have been
overwhelmed. I also read the book almost in one go, wiping the tears
occasionally. So I must admit that I love books like this.
The lovers are Dexter and Emma, or, as they refer
to themselves, Dex and Em. But rather than just getting together and having
a wonderful life as any sensible people would do, they continually make a
mess of things, repelling one another repeatedly over 15 years in order to
fill themselves with regrets. When they finally do get together at the end
of the book, David Nicholls kills off poor old Em by having her riding her
bicycle through London traffic in a rain storm, being hit by a car. This
gave me a total shock, as it did the poor Dex, and he sank into alcoholic
depression. But then we are told that he is eventually able to get himself
together and continue on with life. So that's OK.
The basic structure of the book is given by relating what
is happening on 15th of July - which apparently is St.
Swithin's day, whatever that is - in each of the years from 1988, when
Dex and Em first get together after graduating from The University of
Edinburgh, up until the year 2007, where we see that Dex is recovering after
3 years of tragedy. (Em died on St. Swithin's Day, 2004.) Perhaps I'm
spoiling the plot for potential readers of this book, since the death of Em
does come as such a shock.
Anyway, I had the feeling that those newspaper reviewers
may have been so moved by the story owing to the fact(?) that it reflected
their own lives. Going to endless, meaningless parties. Drinking to excess.
Seeking the meaning of life. Scoffing at convention. Thinking with horror of
the possibility of reaching the age of 40 with a loving spouse, a family and
children, and calling one another "darling".
And so Dex sleeps with scores of beautiful young women -
not Em. Despite this, he only produces one offspring, resulting in a
strangely old-fashioned shotgun marriage to Sylvie, whose family is one of
these snooty, posh, English types, whose wealth was undoubtedly based on
Mrs. Thatcher's degeneracy.
For me, the meaning of life is not this. In the end it is
the realization that life is meaningless. But still, if we do not squander
our lives in the way Em and Dex have done, then at least we can achieve