The Riddle of
Eric S. Margolis:
Notation is Not the Music
Scott Alan Morrison:
The Big Short
Tan Twan Eng:
of Evening Mists
We Need New Names
John M. Hull:
Touching the Rock
A Tale for
the Time Being
Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
E. Howard Hunt:
JFK and the
Can't be Satisfied
In the Garden
The Unseen World
The Spare Room
Sophie and the
The Three Body
The Mill on the
The Indian Clerk
Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture
This book was first
published in 1903, and I first read it 20 or 25 years ago. But now I've
reread it. It's a kind of amateur spy story, concerned with sailing about
in the North Sea, or rather amongst the islands of the German North Sea
coast, in which the author tries to alert his English audience to the fear
of a sudden Germanic invasion by sea. Childers himself did lots of
sailing, including smuggling a load of guns and ammunition in July of 1914
from Germany to Dublin in order to aid the fight for Irish independence.
And thus the extremely jingoistic tenor of the present book did not
reflect the actions of his later life. His support of the Irish cause was
also disappointed in 1922 when he was shot dead by a firing squad of the
Irish Free State to avenge a trivial misdemeanor.
But despite all these violent events of a century ago,
the book was again an enjoyable read. People today associate those North
Sea islands with summer holidays. You have to book early since all
accommodation is soon booked out, at least during the times of the school
holidays. Still, the beaches are enormous so that there is plenty of room
for everybody, even to be quite alone with the sand and the dunes. So much
better than those crowded Mediterranean beaches.
I first read the book on the recommendation of a
relative who was visiting us from Australia. He had a 30 foot sailboat
with which he had many cruises along the Great Barrier Reef. But he also
told us that it would be wonderful to cruise about along the North Sea
coast, and also in the Baltic. Indeed, I envy people who have the good
fortune to live more northwards, in Kiel, or in Bremen. How wonderful it
would be to have such a boat to cruise at leisure in these waters. When I
first arrived here in Germany, during my first summer here, I went with a
friend to Denmark, staying for a week or two on the island of Møn.
Wandering about in the small harbors full of sailboats, I thought of renting
a boat for a couple of days, or a week. But making inquiries, I was told
that boats can only be rented to people who have sailing
licenses. What a disappointment! After all, as a child I spent whole
summers sailing about Barnegat Bay in New Jersey and, at least in those
days, nobody had ever heard of such a thing as having to have a license to
merely sail a boat!
Every evening on the television news
the main stories are concerned with Islamic "terrorism" and the continuing
refugee crisis. Year in, year out, it is the same old story. Instead of
watching all those hysterical, meaningless, day-to-day news items about the
problems the "West" has with Islam, I would recommend this book by Eric
Why pollute our minds with the moronic cowboy rhetoric of
George W. Bush, or the drone-like use of drones by Obama? How many times
have my ears been abused by the noise coming out of the television,
endlessly repeating the words "al-Qaeda"? On page 166 of this book, the
author describes his visit to a shabby little shop in Peshawar, Pakistan, in
the year 1986, to visit a scholarly-looking, tattered little man, Abdullah
Azzam, who was single-handedly running a thing called the Mujaheddin Service
Bureau on various scraps of paper. He had a "dingy little rooming house next
to the office for Muslim mujaheddin headed for Afghanistan". It came to be
known as "the base" or "the center", which in the Arabic language is
expressed as "al-Qaeda". He explains to us clearly what "al-Qaeda" presently
means in the Arabian world.
And he explains the frustration, the anger, which has
developed out of the experience of European colonization, and then the way
the present rulers of the Muslim countries have been controlled by their
past European masters, and now by the interests of the United States. From
chapter to chapter we review the various countries. Algeria, with its
dreadful history of violence imposed by France, finally had a free election,
but the result of that election did not agree with that which France and the
"West" both expected and demanded. Thus a military dictatorship has been
imposed, resulting in untold thousands of tortures, deaths, mutilations. The
same is true of Egypt. Also of Iraq, where Saddam Hussien - our man in the
Middle East - was placed into power by the CIA, only later to be declared
the greatest monster in history, resulting in the present horror which has
filled the evening news for the past 25 years. And on and on it goes. The
chapter on Chechnya is particularly sad. Much of this was new to me. How
Stalin deported the whole nation to concentration camps in the east,
resulting in the deaths of at least half the population, and then the more
recent, mindless killings by the Russians, again liquidating a large
proportion of the population.
It was a difficult book to read. There are chapters
entitled: "The Long Agony of Afghanistan", "The Final Solution in the
Balkans", "The Curse of Lebanon". Where will all of this end? The prime
minister of Germany, Angela Merkel, in an impulse of naïve exuberance,
declared all refugees to be welcomed into the country. At least Germany, as
a consequence of World War I, has no particular history of colonization, and
so there is no historical anger similar to that directed against France and
England. But still, Germany, and also Sweden, which also opened its borders,
are not to be compared to the United States at the end of the 19th century,
when the Statue of Liberty was erected. There are no endless tracts of empty
land for the new settlers, cleared of the previous inhabitants, the Native
Eric Margolis, in a final chapter, tries to think about
how these conflicts might be resolved. For example it is not the case that
Jewish people and Islamic people must remain intimate enemies. In past
times, they lived peacefully together as respected allies, opposing
Christian aggression. The example of the historical conflict between Germany
and France, with its millions of deaths in the two world wars is considered,
and compared with the peaceful situation today. In a more reasonable world
the absurd conflicts of religion within Islam could be resolved. But all of
this is undoubtedly wishful thinking. Even if the interests of the American
"military-industrial complex" - resulting in this dreadful "American Raj" -
were brought to an end, still it would take generations for the conflicts to
As I've often repeated here, it seems to me that religion
is often a source of evil, and so I am certainly not an admirer of Islam. On
the contrary, the fact that less than a single handful of the billions of
Muslims in the world have ever won a Nobel Prize (disregarding the
meaningless "peace" prizes awarded to notoriously violent people), or have
become great mathematicians, or musicians, speaks for itself. Not to mention
the strange and repugnant attitude to women which seems to be prevalent
amongst Muslim men.
Will all of these people finally free themselves from
their gloomy religious superstitions? Will the American military-industrial
complex peacefully dissolve into productive, positive lines of development?
I, for one, am not holding my breath waiting for such Utopian things to come
about. And so I am watching less and less of the evening television news,
turning my mind to more pleasant thoughts.
Music is usually notated using a
system of five parallel, equally spaced horizontal lines, with blobs of ink
placed within this system to indicate the sounds of the music. Thus it is
obvious that the title of the present book is trivially true. Most people
consume music these days not by playing it themselves, but rather by turning
on a radio, or putting little earplugs into their ears and connecting them
to a mobile telephone, or something. The vast majority of the music they are
listening to - all the forms of contemporary "popular" music - has usually
been composed by the musicians themselves, perhaps not even written down on
paper, and thus not notated in any formal sense. But the so-called
"classical" music is notated by its composer, and the musicians performing
such music are reading, interpreting, what they think the sounds associated
with the notation should be. In the case of the standard classical
orchestral repertoire, almost all the music was written between 100 and 250
years ago, and therefore it is impossible to simply ask the composer how to
interpret the notation.
Is this a problem? Surely music is there for
pleasure. If we put some musical notation on a music stand in front of us
and play through the notes as well as we can and find that it sounds good,
well surely that is what classical music is all about. Often this music is
wonderful. Listening to it, and very much more so, playing it oneself, can
transport us into a rapturous state of feeling, almost an intoxication. What
more can we ask of music?
Many professional musicians or musicologists would
dismiss this as being typical of the amateur, the dilettante. We should look
for the true intentions of the original composer in order to achieve
an authentic interpretation. Indeed, many of those composers who
lived between 100 and 250 years ago, and also many of the composers of
"classical" music who lived less than 100 years ago, tried to write more and
more details into the notation of their compositions in an effort to
establish more control over the interpretation. Taking this to an extreme,
some modern musicians might say that there is only one, pure, perfect,
authentic interpretation which represents the true intentions of the
composer, and only this interpretation should be allowed. Thus, for them,
the Notation is the Music!
There is a problem with this if we go back even further,
to music which was written more than 250 years ago. Looking at the original
notation of such music, one sees that it is often just a sketchy, bare-bones
outline of what must actually have been played. Something like what the
performers of "popular" music these days might write down in order to remind
themselves of what they want to play. Thus, the problem for the musician
performing this Old Music, or Ancient Music, which was written before 1750
(the year of J.S. Bach's death, which is generally taken to be the
definition of the point where "classical" music becomes "ancient") is to
decide how to play it.
Back in those days there were no radios or MP3 players,
and so people who wanted to experience music generally had to play it
themselves. Or perhaps they could hope that there might be some music in the
church, to replace a boring sermon. Thus many books were published, giving
instructions, or guidelines about how to play music. Today we can read those
books to get an idea about the authentic interpretation of ancient
Perhaps many people would say that these ideas are just
too esoteric; who is interested in such dry, academic problems? Imagine the
Nō theater of Japan. An ancient tradition, comparable to European
renaissance music, but performed in a timeless, seemingly static way.
I am reminded of a Japanese music student attending a
course - or "master class" as it is called, since Barthold Kuijken is
certainly the greatest contemporary master of the baroque flute. She was
attempting to play the Sarabande from the third Suite of the first book of
Jacques Hotteterre, which has the title "Le Depart". Of course it is a slow
piece, but she was trying to play as carefully as possible, correctly, no
mistakes. I remember seeing her tiny fingers, admiring the fact that she was
able to acurately cover the small finger holes on her baroque flute. Such a
contrast with Barthold's large, generous hands! And so began her lesson. A
lifeless, meaningless sequence of flute tones. Then gradually we were led to
think about the emotions of departure. As I recall, her lesson was in
English, and so we thought about what it was like to depart from Japan, so
far away, to study in Germany where even another strange language is spoken.
(As I recall, I spent the rest of the course sitting next to her, whispering
a sketchy translation of what was going on.) What was it like to leave
everything behind and travel this far into the unknown, away from family and
friends? And so, gradually, the piece became a very touching, moving
interpretation of the music.
Ten or fifteen years ago I went to a number of these
courses. I suppose I was usually the only amateur. The other participants
were music students or professional orchestral musicians who were interested
in learning to play on baroque instruments. After all, these days a concert
of baroque music, or a Bach cantata, played on "modern" instruments seems
outdated, out of place. Barthold Kuijken's ideas were always interesting and
instructive. We learned as much by listening to the lessons of the others as
during our own sessions. In the evenings, when the younger students had
retired to bed, a few of us - the "hard core" - stayed up over a bottle of
wine for an hour or two into the evening, talking about lots of things, not
just music. It was wonderful to get to know Barthold Kuijken in this way.
This book was a Christmas present. It is a new book which
he has published in 2013. I have been neglecting the flute recently. My
project now, in retirement, is to try to learn to play the viol. A very
difficult undertaking! I will not get so very far with this new instrument.
But still, reading this book has reminded me about what a wonderful,
inspiring man Barthold Kuijken is.
Eilis is a young Irish woman in the
early 1950s. She lives with her mother and her older sister, but she is
unable to find a sensible employment in Ireland. A priest, Father Flood, is
visiting from his faraway parish in Brooklyn, New York. He suggests that
Eilis could immigrate to Brooklyn where he will arrange accommodation and a
position in a department store. So she does.
It's a simple story. Brooklyn isn't really as nice as
Ireland. Yet despite loneliness, Eilis is able to exist. She gets to know
Tony, from a poor Italian family in Brooklyn. Tony loves her, yet Eilis
doesn't really know what she feels. Suddenly news comes that her sister in
Ireland has died. Tragedy. Tears. She must go back to be with her mother, at
least for a couple of weeks. Tony is unhappy. Maybe she will never come
back. And so he begs her to marry him in secret, just to force her to
return. She wilts under the pressure.
Back in Ireland, people admire her, everything she has
achieved in America. She puts off returning to Brooklyn. Nobody knows that
she is married. Instead she is now in the middle of things. She is offered a
comfortable job. She begins to fall in love with one of the young fellows
she had known as a girl. But then suddenly, through the local contacts with
Father Flood, the news that Eilis is really married arrives in the town.
Disgrace, and Eilis flees back to Brooklyn.
A sensitively told story whose moral is that even in
today's world, marriage is not to be taken lightly.
This one was a fun read. The hero is
being pursued by a professional killer and also by the FBI, and the chase
takes him, along with his girlfriend, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and
back. At the end, TRUTH prevails, and the hero, together with the heroine,
The story is concerned with an imaginary internet
monster, called "Circles". This seems to be a fictional version of the
real-life "Facebook". I must confess to ignorance when it comes to this
theme, since I do not have a "Facebook" account. In fact I have never
clicked into "Facebook", and so I have no idea what it looks like, despite
the fact that many people have told me that they do use "Facebook". A large
proportion of the population of the Earth feels compelled to entrust this
"Facebook" business with many of their most personal details. Everybody
knows that "Facebook" extracts these details in order to sell them to
advertisers, and perhaps to the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, GCHQ, and
whatever else there is that doesn't already have the information. Despite
this, I often see people walking about, or lounging somewhere, immersed in
their smartphones, and if I have the rudeness to interrupt them, I am
informed that they are checking their "Facebook" account.
Well, the fact that nothing is private on the internet is
something we have known at least since Edward Snowden told us about it.
Therefore that is not the scandal at the center of the present story.
Instead it is the idea that many of the so-called "friends" which these
"Circles" - or "Facebook" - people have in their accounts are not real
people. Instead they are computer robots, or "socialbots", mindlessly
generating texts to occupy the minds of those immersed in "Facebook".
In the present instance, a presidential election is
immanent, and one of the candidates, whose name is Diebolt, has organized a
great hoard of these socialbots to be inserted into "Circles" to tell their
real-life "friends" what a great person this Diebolt is in the hope that
they will then vote for him.
I really had to laugh about this. As we know, the
Election Solutions", a company which was formally named "Diebold
Election Systems", manufactures voting machines. These are computers which
can be programmed to do anything you want, and in the case of elections
within the USA, they are simply programmed to create
the illusion that one particular candidate has won; namely the
candidate who the "powers that be" have decided should win.
Since I am not a citizen of Germany, I have never voted
here. Nevertheless everyone can see that Germans are allowed to actually
vote on real pieces of paper which are inserted into ballot boxes. At the
end of the day, the representatives of the the various political parties
which have taken part in the election in each local district spread the few
hundred votes out on the table and count them in view of everyone. I suppose
this takes an hour or two. The results are phoned in, and within an hour the
television news is filled with the results of the election. At the latest by
midnight, all districts have reported in, giving the final results. If there
is a dispute, the election ballots can be simply recounted.
I feel sorry for the citizens of the USA who still seem
to believe that they live in a democracy, rather than their farcical
illusion of a democracy.
This is not a novel, instead it is
the true story of various Wall Street characters who, in 2005-6,
anticipating the excitement that would befall the financial world a couple
of years later, placed the appropriate bets and thus became rich. It all has
to do with "credit default swaps" on "subprime mortgages". Things which were
endlessly talked about on TV and in the newspapers in those days. As I
understand it, the story of the book has now been made into a movie.
In our culture banks operate according to the fractional-reserve
system. They can lend out many times the amount of money they have on
hand in deposits. Twenty or more times! Thus if you go into a bank and
humbly ask for a mortgage, the bank manager will act as if he is concerned
about whether or not you will be able to pay it back. But in reality the
money you get from the bank is just a matter of the computer adding on some
number to your balance. The money has been created from nothing. The bank
has no particular stake in these new numbers. Instead it is pure profit. The
bank is taking in 5% or 10%, or whatever it is, year for year, on the basis
of having given you nothing of substance other than numbers in your bank
balance. This is the reason that the bank in every town is the most opulent
building there is, a marble palace.
In earlier times this practice of demanding unfair
interest on loans of money, and even on money which has been created by the
lender out of nothing, was called usury, and it was illegal. But now, in our
modern world where anything goes, it is business as usual.
Of course it is often the case in life that we don't have
the immediate means to achieve something of value. For example buying a
house with a mortgage is a very common experience. As I understand it, in
the system of Islamic
banking, the bank would buy the house for you using cash it has on
deposit, and you would live in it, paying rent. After an agreed time and
rent, the ownership of the house would then be transferred to you. As far as
paying money to the bank is concerned, it is the same as a mortgage. The
difference is that the question of ownership and responsibility is clearly
In contrast to this we have the Wall Street system of
buying mortgages from agents traveling about the place, selling mortgages
for a fee to anybody. The mortgages are then combined into packaged bonds
and sold on the bond market to people, or institutions, which have no idea
and no interest in knowing who they are ultimately lending their money to.
Credit default swaps are then bets on whether or not the debts will be paid
off. Side bets on these bets are also made, and they are given the seemingly
dignified name of "financial derivatives". But who is buying all of these
involved bets, investing their money in them?
Well, if you want to save for the future it is not a
sensible idea to just accumulate bundles of paper money and put them under
your bed. These days, with negative real interest rates, it is also not a
good idea to put your money in the bank. The alternative is to invest in
stocks or bonds, or more simply in investment funds dealing with such
things. Stocks, or "equities" as they are called, are shares of ownership in
public companies. The day-to-day selling price of these equities fluctuates
up and down like the waves in the ocean, often being driven wildly in one
direction or another by people nervously speculating on becoming rich. These
waves are described in detail, openly, in the newspapers and on many sites
on the internet. The dealings in equities are carefully regulated. And over
time, as business prospers, the value of these equities generally tends to
The bond markets are different from this. As Michael
Lewis describes it, they are often opaque. Complicated, obscure jargon is
used to confuse the investor. For example the "insurance" against the
default on a debt is not called insurance, but rather it is called a "swap".
The fine print on debt contracts is often almost impossible to understand,
leaving it open to interpretation, litigation, read by nobody except the
lawyers who have formulated it. Since there is often no open, regulated
market, it is impossible to know what the fair price for a given bond is. I
suppose this is like thinking about the value of your house. You imagine it
is some given figure, but who knows what somebody would really be willing to
pay? If you were to put it up for sale on Ebay then maybe the price might be
something one day and something wildly different on another day.
Thus people dealing with bonds rely on the credit rating
agencies to tell them how safe a given bond is. Moody's, Standard &
Poor's and Fitch are the big Wall Street agencies. Can these agencies be
trusted? For example the financial world - and the political world as well -
quakes if, say Moody's suddenly deems French government bonds to be not AAA,
but rather just AAa, or something. A slight nuance of difference. But do
these arbiters of value really know what they are doing? They give "junk
bonds" a BBB rating. Yet when those Wall Street banks put together hundreds
of junk mortgages into junk mortgage bonds, the agencies rated them AAA.
Why? The rating agencies assumed that each individual event of a mortgage
default was statistically independent of each other possible default. This
is clearly nonsense. For example the entire housing bubble might go pop! Or
the "teaser" mortgage rates might all change almost simultaneously to much
higher "usury" rates.
Michael Lewis shows that the people working in the credit
agencies were the nobodies of Wall Street. The poorest paid, least
intelligent people. Incompetent. A joke.
So who lost all of the money in the Wall Street panic of
2008? For example the Deutsche Bank was deeply involved in this whole
mortgage bond business. And it was their standing joke that the stupid
people taking up all of this debt, who actually believed in the nonsense put
out by the credit rating agencies, were in Düsseldorf. The insiders simply
said the word "Düsseldorf", and everybody had a good laugh.
Düsseldorf is the capitol of the German state of
North-Rhine Westphalia, which is where my pension comes from. The government
is a coalition of the socialists and the green party. They seem to spend
billions on all sorts of things, and yet there is always more to spend. I
suppose this is due to the fact that the euro currency gives a vastly
underrated exchange value, making German products for export artificially
cheap, and imports, and foreign travel, expensive. Thus billions can be lost
on Wall Street junk bonds, and nobody really cares.
But it is not only the German taxpayer who has paid for
the junk bond bubble. President Obama, in all his wisdom, decided that the
American taxpayers would buy up at face value all the worthless junk bonds
left floating about the place and thus hundreds of billions, trillions, have
been transferred from normal taxpayers to the gamblers on Wall Street. They
are all unimaginably rich. Even those who, formally, "lost" their bets,
received many millions. Michael Lewis interviews these people, and he tells
us about the details of their personalities, often trying to make a joke
here and there. But in the end, he tells us that it was a sad story.
So what is the situation now, in the year 2016? I don't
pretend to have any great understanding of these things. In fact I can't
understand it at all. Huge amounts of liquidity have been added in to the
economy which should lead to a huge inflation. But where is the inflation?
When will it come, if at all?
The central banks have introduced negative real interest
rates. Of course those rates must be set somewhere near the levels of the
free market, and since governments have produced such floods of new money,
the demand for money is much less than the supply. Thus saving is punished
and borrowing is rewarded.
House prices in the USA have again ballooned up to the
level reached at the height of the last bubble in 2007. Government debt has
also mushroomed. Germany, France and so forth guarantee the debts of other
countries in the EU to the tune of many hundreds of billions, if not
trillions. Fantasy amounts that could never be covered.
The big investment banks have amassed derivatives, bets
on various debts, which are so massive as to be beyond any level of
understanding. I have read that the Deutsche Bank alone is exposed to
derivatives on the order of hundreds of trillions! This is many
times as great as the total economic activity of the entire world in a year!
If, say, we assume that these derivatives cost as little as 25 "basis
points" - that is a quarter of one percent per year - then the fees on one
hundred trillion will be 250 billions per year! Undoubtedly they are
much more than that. How is this possible?
Surely all these bets are just fantasies. It is not as in
the real world where those who fail to pay their gambling debts are then
terrorized by the Mafia, or the Yakuza. All the hundreds of billions,
trillions, of fantasy fees flow back and forth between Goldman Sachs,
Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, and what have you, nearly cancelling
themselves out. These are all the trillions which have been given to them by
the taxpayers. Some tiny percentage, say a trillion, is quietly siphoned off
each year into the pockets of the insiders on Wall Street, or the City of
London, and might thus actually enter into the real economy. Perhaps the
rest - well into the thousands of trillions, that is to say, quadrillions -
is kept in flow, guaranteeing that these banks remain too big to fail.
Do I envy these Wall Street bankers with all their
riches? Some time ago I read an article about a psychologist who studied the
relationship between wealth and happiness. He concluded that while,
obviously, too little wealth leads to unhappiness, the same is true of too
much wealth. The optimum degree of wealth is a figure many orders of
magnitude less than that which these Wall Street bankers possess. In fact it
is just about equal to the pension which I thankfully receive from the
government of North-Rhine Westphalia. And so I am happy enough, without
feeling particularly sorry for those poor rich bankers.
The author writes in a poetic style.
The story takes place in Malaya, or Malasia as it is now called. The
narrator is Yun Ling, a woman of Chinese descent who, when she was young,
had been thrown into a Japanese concentration camp during the Second World
War. The narration takes place alternately during the early 1950s when she
has become the apprentice and then the lover of Aritomo, a Japanese gardener
living in the mountains of Malaya, and then when she is an older woman in
her 60s, residing in her house in the garden, which used to be Aritomo's,
who has long since died, looking back on her life.
She tells us much about Japanese gardens, and about
Aritomo. Apparently he was a peaceful gardener, living in Malaya since
before the war, and we are told that he saved numbers of people from the
horrible fate suffered by many in the Japanese occupation. It was a nice
story of the reconciliation the woman has found after all the horror she had
experienced under the Japanese.
But then towards the end, the story takes us in other
directions, telling us things which we really didn't want to know. Tatsuji,
an elderly Japanese man, visits the elderly Yun Ling with the purpose of
writing a biography of Aritomo, including reproductions of his various art
works. He was not only a gardener. There are prints in the traditional
Japanese style. He was a master of Zen archery, and so forth. Tatsuji gets
onto the subject of tattoos, telling us that he is a connoisseur of this art
form as well. He says that the most famous tattoos have been preserved.
After the tattooed person dies, the corpse is then skinned, and thus the
tattoo is conserved in some sort of museum.
What a revolting idea!
Then gradually, after a chapter or two describing all the
tortures and sufferings Yun Ling experienced in the Japanese concentration
camp, it comes out that her lover, Aritomo, only a few years afterwards,
executed a large scale, Yakusa-style tattoo on the back of Yun Ling. And she
agrees to donate this tattoo to Tatsuji's collection. How disgusting!
This twist of the story seemed to me to be totally
implausible. For comparison, imagine a story of an emaciated Jewish survivor
of a Nazi concentration camp emerging from his fate to then become a student
in a traditional German sword-fighting society, proudly displaying to the
world the scars on his face. The story would not only be absurd, it would
also be considered to be the height of bad taste, an insult to the
sufferings so many had experienced.
And then we are told that Aritomo did, in fact, have a
role in the Japanese occupation. All the great art works of Asia were being
taken - stolen - and then put into wooden boxes and hidden away in caves dug
in the ground by the slave laborers in the concentration camps. And Aritomo
had something to do with this.
I can't imagine that the Japanese were really wasting
their time on such things. But who knows? Perhaps the author, Tan Twan Eng,
knows something about it. Crime and corruption often seem to be associated
NoViolet Bulawayo is the pen name of
the author, whose real name according to the Wikipedia is Elizabeth Zandile
Tshele. She is a native of Zimbabwe, but has moved to the United States
where she studied and has become a writer.
And so, perhaps, this is more or less a story about her
experiences. In the first part we see the world through the eyes of Darling,
who is a 10 year old girl. She lives in a slum, somewhere in Zimbabwe.
(Could it be in the city of Bulawayo?) But she had not always lived there.
Formerly her family had lived in a sensible house, and they prospered. But
then bulldozers came and wrecked everything. The people fled to the slum,
named Paradise. This was, and is, the Zimbabwe of Robert
Mugabe. Did the author also experience such disruption and deprivation
as a child? In any case, the dialog in the book is that of an innocent young
girl, playing with her friends, often experiencing horrible things.
Then the story changes. Darling is now in the US, in
Detroit or something, living with her aunt, or cousin; a woman in her 30s.
Darling is 15, and then gradually she becomes older, finishing high school.
We read about various episodes. At first she cannot speak the same slang as
all the others and she feels out of things. But then she has a couple of
school friends, also from Africa. They have picked up all the typical
expressions of the American teenager. They do lots of improper things on the
internet. But then they think about "home", about Zimbabwe and their native
Darling visits an old man in an old people's home who
sometimes becomes disruptive. He has immigrated from Zimbabwe many years
ago, and now, as he is losing his mind, he begins shouting in his native
language. Darling can pacify him just by listening, and understanding. He
tells us that his people cannot go "home" because they came to America on
tourist visas, or whatever, becoming "illegals", unable to reenter the
country. They worked in the most demeaning occupations, poorly paid. He
would like to go home to be buried with dignity, according to tradition,
alongside his ancestors.
In the final chapter Darling calls her mother, who has
stayed in Zimbabwe, via Skype. She then speaks with one of the few of her
childhood friends who has also remained there. And Darling is told that she
has lost her soul, living in America, a strange land without meaning.
This is a book about blindness. It
is not a novel. Rather it is a collection of the author's thoughts, written
down every few days after he had become totally blind. He tells us about the
difficulties a blind person has when getting about in the world. How easy it
is to lose the sense of orientation, to become lost. How it is to be with
his children, but to be unable to know what they look like. And he tells us
about his struggles to accept his fate.
John M. Hull was an Australian who became a professor of
theology in England. He was certainly a very sincere man, yet, to be honest,
I find the concept of theology in the modern world something which is
difficult to take seriously. The author tells us of his travels from one
theological conference to another around the globe. But then his blindness
is a problem.
As he describes it, theological conferences seem to be
such that the participants gather together in a room and chat with one
another, getting to know new people. I can scarcely imagine what they must
talk about: passages in the Bible which they have found to be inspiring?
obscure points of Hebrew grammar? Who knows? Surely it is very different
from a conference on mathematics, physics, medicine, or whatever, where
people are keen to learn of the latest developments in some concrete field
(On the other hand it is true that the ancient
universities of Europe were established in the medieval period for the
purpose of training young people to become priests. Thus they were primarily
theological in nature.)
The problem with being a blind professor of theology at a
theological conference is that it is impossible to just walk up to the
various participants and have a short chat with them in order to get to know
everybody. Therefore the author devotes many of his essays to the
difficulties this brings.
He also tells us that he has read the biographies of many
blind people and he finds it difficult to understand how some of them were
able to just accept blindness and to go on with life as if it had never
occurred, creating successful businesses, organizing societies for helping
others, setting out in a new path of life. For him, the problem is to
understand blindness. What is the meaning of blindness? Why has he been
fated to have it?
Are these theological questions?
Vision is something which is so basic that it is
difficult to imagine what it must be like without it. Large parts of the
brain are devoted to the analysis of visual information. So I suppose it is
natural that John M. Hull experienced dramatic visual dreams. The brain
tries to do something with all that grey matter which isn't getting the
information it craves. The brain remains intact; just the eyes are
When reading the book we learn about the sequence of
events which led to the author's blindness. As a young boy he had asthma and
skin problems. Then, still as a boy, he developed cataracts in his eyes. The
surgical procedure was to pierce the lenses, thus emptying them, but causing
the vitreous humor to move forward, resulting in a detachment of the
retinas. He had numbers of further operations without telling us the
details, presumably to try to attach the retinas of his eyes back in place.
All of this took place between the initial operations in the 1930s in
Australia and into the 1970s in England.
I have had some experience of such things. But thankfully
the field of ophthalmology has made tremendous advances when compared to the
situation 50 or more years ago. Problems with my right eye led to a vitrectomy,
then retinal detachment and various further things. A number of operations.
I am left with a bit of visual distortion, but my vision is still 60-70% in
that eye, and it has remained so for the past 5 years. I feel sorry for John
M. Hull, who would have had a similar result if he had only been born 50
I suppose repairing an eye might be compared with
repairing a camera which has developed some fault. You can put various kinds
of inert oils into the eye to press the retina back into place. Then with a
laser the retina is fastened onto the back wall of the eye. And of course
these days the standard surgical procedure for dealing with cataracts is
But this is not to suggest that we should leave
everything to invasive medicine. Years ago I read Aldous Huxley's The
Art of Seeing, which made a great impression on me. It is
important to use the eyes properly, not staring for hours at books or
computer screens. The eyes should be relaxed by looking casually about from
time to time, enjoying being out in the open on a clear, sunny day, not
hiding the eyes behind sunglasses and thus subjecting them to additional
strains. And this is particularly true for children whose eyes are still
Tregian the Younger lived, according to the established records, from
1574-1618. This is the Elizabethan - Jacobean period of English history. The
time of Shakespeare, but also of those great renaissance music composers:
William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Orlando Gibbons, John Dowland, and so on. Much
of their music was collected in a manuscript called the Fitzwilliam
Virginal Book. It is unclear who compiled the music in the manuscript,
but one plausible candidate is Francis Tregian the Younger.
This is an historical novel, imagining what his life
might have been like. It really is well worth reading. Much better, and
certainly very much better researched than such stupid, yet acclaimed recent
books as Wolf Hall, or How to be Both, both of which also
attempted to tell stories about the renaissance period.
In those days religion was everything. Having the wrong
religion, or, horror of horrors, no particular religion, would have meant
being thrown into some dungeon, tortured by the inquisition. Life was
brutal. And yet it produced great works of art.
We follow Francis Tregian from one imagined adventure to
the next. He is a kind of Forrest Gump of the renaissance, becoming a close
friend of Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth, King Henry IV of France, the famous
English musicians, various Italian musicians: Claudio Monteverdi, and so on.
He is an expert swordsman, horseman. He speaks Latin, Greek, Italian,
French, Dutch, etc., all without the slightest trace of an accent, passing
in each country as a native speaker. He plays the virginal
with such virtuosity, artistry, that everybody is overwhelmed. Queen
Elizabeth almost falls at his feet, moved with such passion by the beauty of
his music. He also plays the organ, and the lute as well, with equal
Oh well. I suppose it is understandable that the author,
Anne Cuneo, got carried away in this manner, having spent years researching
her subject. When coming to the end of the story we find that she has
attached a further chapter, describing exactly what is truly known about the
life of Francis Tregian the Younger. And she explains quite plausibly how
the story she has told could possibly be the way it was. I see that
in the Wikipedia entry for Tregian, which is full of the researches of
somebody named Ruby Reid Thompson, cold water is dumped all over this
narrative of Tregian's life. But still, I prefer Anne Cuneo's version.
Although the author is an English
woman, of Indian extraction, this book is concerned with the Philippines. At
the beginning it is said that Esperanza Street is one of the oldest streets
in Puerto. Looking at the Wikipedia
page for Puerto, it doesn't seem to correspond with the story in the
book. I imagined that the Esperanza Street of the book must have been
somewhat nearer to Manila. A suburb along the coast, maybe to the south. It
is certainly not an elegant, rich neighborhood. Part of it is a slum, but
other parts have sensible buildings. Even old, elegant buildings.
The narrator is Joseph, who comes from a poor family. His
mother has died, his father works on the docks. He has been taken in as a
house-boy to a boarding house. The family there imagines that it is of
higher quality than most of the other families in Esperanza Street. But the
father, who has died somewhere in the past, gambled away everything, forcing
the mother to turn her house into a boarding house. Joseph is a servant, but
he is also a member of the family, going to school, being brought up almost
as a son.
From chapter to chapter we learn about many further
characters. The book is beautifully written. The central idea is that a man
who grew up in the slum of Esperanza Street has become a rich real estate
developer, and it is his project to develop Esperanza Street into the modern
world. Shopping malls, car parks, and so forth. Getting rid of all that old
garbage. Disrupting the lives of the poor slum dwellers.
What is the author trying to say? Should the old garbage
be preserved? Or should urban development be allowed, yet excluding shopping
centers and car parks? Or should everybody in Esperanza Street set off in a
great migration, hoping to find paradise in Germany?
A generation or two ago, Singapore was in a similar
situation. A filthy slum. Traveling through such countries one has the
feeling that it is all this garbage which is causing the mess. Singapore
changed course dramatically. Throwing garbage onto the streets, spitting,
was dealt with vigorously. Offenders were thrown into jail, whipped. Men
were not allowed to have unkempt beards or long hair. And gradually
Singapore changed from being a slum into being one of the wealthiest
countries in Asia.
Would I prefer to live in Singapore, or in Esperanza
Street? Well, if that was the only choice then obviously Singapore would be
preferable. But I am happy to be here. A real paradise.
At first, I really enjoyed this
book. The story is that Ruth, a middle aged woman living on Cortes Island in
the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland of the
Pacific coast of Canada in a town called Whaletown, goes walking on the
beach and finds a plastic bag which seems to have been in the water for a
long time. In the bag is a diary, written in English, by a Japanese girl
named Nao, or Naoko, telling about her unpleasant life in Tokyo. It's a
long, involved story which we follow from chapter to chapter, alternating
between Nao's diary, written perhaps ten years ago, and Ruth's reading about
all of these things now. Ruth is especially interested, since her mother was
Japanese. But she herself grew up in the US. She is a writer who divides her
time between the extremes of Whaletown and New York City.
In the middle of all this, out of curiosity, I decided to
google the author, Ruth Ozeki, and I found that she shares all of these
attributes with the Ruth of the story. In fact, according to her website,
she is married to Oliver Kellhammer, a German-Canadian environmental artist.
And the Ruth of the story is also married to Oliver, an environmental
artist! What is this? A novel, or an autobiography? Is she sharing with us
all the intimate secrets of her real life? And what is an "environmental
According to the story, and presumably in real life as
well, logging companies go through the islands of the Strait of Georgia,
clearing out tracts of land, shipping the lumber off somewhere else. Then
new trees are to be planted - of the same species which have been chopped
down - in order to aid the process of reforestation. This is not
environmental artistry. Environmental artists believe that they know better
than the official forestry authorities. They believe that in the process of
global warming, the Strait of Georgia will soon have a tropical
climate. Thus they plant tropical, or at least temperate, trees, knowing
that such species will thrive in the coming climate catastrophe. But
according to the story of the book, the Canadian authorities are opposed to
this form of artistry.
So who is right?
After a few minutes of internet search I was unable to
find any Canadian sites giving historical temperature records at particular
weather stations. But I was able to find the nearest US weather station,
which is located at place called Olga, on Orcas Island at the south end of
the Strait of Georgia. The plot of mean temperature for the period 1890-2014
is given here.
Even when peering carefully at this through my age-weakened eyes, I am
unable to see the temperature doing much of anything in the past 125 years.
But to get back to the book... Nao was having a terrible
time at a Tokyo junior high school. In the popular imagination, the Japanese
are often portrayed as being polite, peaceful people. But the pupils in
Nao's school abuse Nao in ways which I find to be difficult to imagine.
Reading about the details was sickening. Even the teacher took part in the
tortures. This is beyond anything I can understand, at least on the basis of
my school experiences many years ago, or those of the children here in
Germany. How could the real-life Ruth, the author of the book, write such
According to the short description of her life on her
internet site, she has spent much time living in Japan, so she must have
more than a casual acquaintance with Japanese life.
And then we have the story of a son of Nao's great
grandmother. He was a kamikaze pilot in the Second World War. According to
the story, the abuse he had to endure at the hands of his superiors amounted
to a continuous physical torture. Again, a sickening read.
Where was all this heading? What would be the resolution
of the story of the book? I kept reading on, getting towards the end...
But what a disappointment!
The whole thing degenerates into some sort of New-Age
gobbledygook. We are treated to another retelling of the Many Worlds
Interpretation of quantum mechanics, gleaned this time from the pages of the
New Yorker Magazine by Ruth's husband, Oliver. We are told that in another
possible world, the Japanese are really nice people, and both Nao and the
kamikaze pilot live happily ever after. And in a still further possible
world, something else happens. And so on. Who knows? Take your pick of
whatever you want.
The real-life Ruth tells us in her internet site that she
has recently been ordained as a Buddhist priest by the Brooklyn Zen Center.
Well, OK. But somehow it seems to me that, despite her partial Japanese
ancestry, ordination by the Brooklyn Zen Center is not to be compared with
such things in an ancient Buddhist temple in Nepal, or India, or Japan. Is
the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics part of the official
beliefs of the Brooklyn Zen Center? Such a thought may be neither here nor
there; but still, I wish she had given us a more sensible ending to the
This book only makes sense if you
have previously read Albert Camus' classic short novel The
Stranger. That book was first published in 1942, in the middle of
World War II. It is strange to think that Rommel - the Desert Fox - was
moving through North Africa at about that time, although he did not make it
as far as Algeria. In contrast, The Stranger is about lethargy,
indifference. The "hero", Meursault, is a Frenchman, although he lives and
grew up in the French colony of Algeria. On a hot day on the beach, blended
by the sun, not really thinking about anything in particular, he shoots dead
an Arab, emptying his revolver into the body. And then he more or less
sleepwalks through the consequences, telling us about his strange feelings.
The Arab is nothing. A symbol of the meaninglessness of life.
book, which has recently been published (in French, but of course I
have read the English translation), takes up the story from the point of
view of the brother of "The Arab". He is angry about the fact that "The
Arab" has no name in Camus' famous book. So he tells us the name. The Arab
is named Musa. The narrator, Harun, was a small boy when his brother Musa
was murdered by Meursault in 1942. But it is now, and he is an old man. He
goes on and on about his anger about all sorts of things. He hates France
and all the things it did to Algeria. And he hates Islam for all its
hypocrisy. (Why is wine supposed to flow in heaven for the blessed, whereas
it is forbidden here on earth?)
Well, as we have read in the book by Eric Margolis,
reviewed above, the people in those Islamic lands have much reason to be
angry, even before that fool, George W. Bush, set the US military into a
frenzy of killing in Afghanistan, Iraq and various other countries. The
French were, possibly, even worse!
And so the narrator of the present book tells us how, in
1962, at the end of the Algerian war of independence, he takes his revenge,
killing in cold blood a Frenchman, a day after Algeria gains its
independence. He is arrested. But the crime he is accused of is not really
the murder, rather it is the fact that he did not bother to be an active
participant in the Resistance against the French.
If he had killed the Frenchman a day before, then it
would not have been murder, rather it would have been an heroic act of war.
He laughs at the absurdity of this, and the parallel with the guilt of
Meursault who was executed not for the murder, but rather for the fact that
he had not wept openly at the funeral of his mother. But in contrast with
Meursault, he is released from prison, since the killing of a Frenchman
does, to some degree, absolve him of the crime of not participating in the
The book has been a great success in France, winning the
prestigious Goncourt prize. I suppose this is the guilt of the present
generation for the crimes of its ancestors. And the anger of those Algerians
living in the high-rise slums of Paris.
I found the book to be a bit tedious. All of this anger
does not compare with the poetry of Albert Camus.
This short novel is based on a
specific incident which took place off Santa Maria Island, on the coast of
Chile, near the city of Conception, in the year 1805. An American ship was
anchored near the island for the purpose of collecting seals, or seal skins.
Another ship came into view, the Chilean ship Tryal. It seemed to be acting
strangely. The captain of the American ship, Amasa Delano, had himself rowed
over to the Tryal in one of his ship's boats, and he found a confusing
situation. He was told that the Tryal had been lost in a storm, then
suffered weeks of drifting aimlessly about. Many of the crew had died of
scurvy and thirst. There were many slaves on board, and a few Spanish
seamen, but he was told most had died. The captain of the Tryal, Benito
Cereno, behaved very strangely. He was always closely accompanied by his
servant, who was also a black slave.
In Melville's fictional account, Amasa Delano thinks only
of helping the poor people on the ship. He has water brought, a few
provisions from his ship. But he is puzzled by the behavior of Benito
Cereno. What can it mean? Does Cereno plan to attack his ship, killing his
men? Surely that cannot be so. In the goodness of his heart he dismisses
such absurd thoughts.
Approaching the final scene, he lowers himself into his
boat to return to his orderly, well-run American ship with its fine sailors.
They push off, but then, suddenly, Benito Cereno jumps after him into the
boat, begging to be saved. The Tryal has been captured by a mutiny of the
the black slaves. They have brutally slaughtered most of the crew. And so
Amasa Delano sends two of his boats to the Tryal to capture it, which his
intrepid sailors carry off with flying colors. And then they all sail over
to the nearby port of Conception where justice is done, and the book ends
with long extracts translated from various Chilean protocols. Amasa Delano
is everywhere praised for his wonderful character.
Just reading through the book, it seemed to me to be
nothing more than the narration of an interesting and dangerous event in the
life of a gung-ho sailor in the days of yore, with the flowery language of
Herman Melville spicing up the original narration of Amasa Delano in his "Narrative
of Voyages and Travels in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres"
(1817). You can read the relevant chapter online here.
I have also found a longer essay dealing with all of these things here.
As with everything that Herman Melville wrote, this book
has been the subject of extensive literary criticism, attributing deep
meanings to the most trivial details. As far as I can see, academics are
limited by two defining facts:
Therefore the only conclusion can be that, contrary to the thoughts of a
simple-minded reader such as me, this book is a subtle, obvious,
satire on the evils which such people as Amasa Delano visited upon the
- Slavery is obviously evil, and
- at least for American academics, Herman Melville is beyond all
Obviously slavery is evil. Particularly slavery based on
racism, as it was practiced in the Americas. But the happy circumstance that
slavery has now been done away with, at least in its overt forms, and in
most of the world, obscures the fact that it was a commonplace in former
Park, in his "Travels in the Interior of Africa" during our
period, around 1800, tells us that at least in West Africa, all manual work
was done by slaves. In Europe, the serfs were essentially slaves. Serfdom
gradually came to an end in England by 1500, but in most of the rest of
Europe it only ended after the French Revolution. Slavery was the usual form
In the case of the Tryal, the slaves were not being kept
in chains. They were being transported as passengers on the ship,
accompanied by their owner, far outnumbering the sailors. A sad spectacle.
Is it absurd to compare this with the modern spectacle of
hundreds of Africans crowded together on small, floundering boats, trying to
cross the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy? The conditions must be as bad
as on the slave ships of old. Yet they submit themselves freely to this
ordeal, dreaming of the life they see on television, or the internet. If
they survive the passage to Europe, will they find the life of their dreams,
or will it be mere displacement, the drudgery of menial labor? How sad it is
that they find themselves unable to fulfill their dreams at home, in Africa.
Unusually for Murakami, there is
almost nothing of the surreal in this book. It seems that some Japanese
names are associated with colors, but the name Tsukuru Tazaki is colorless.
As an adolescent schoolboy, Tsukuru was in a clique of five young people,
the other four of which had colorful names. Then after graduating from
school and going on to college he was suddenly dropped by the others. They
refused to have anything more to do with him. What had he done wrong? Nobody
told him. And so he fell into a state of depression.
But he was in college in Tokyo, while the others stayed
in their hometown of Nagoya. Is it part of the Japanese character to live
life in tight-knit social groups and then to feel suicidal if the group you
happen to be in breaks up? Surely it would have been more natural for
him to just get on with life. Forget those horrible friends who turned out
not to be friends after all.
So Tsukuru led a sober, solitary life, and we meet him in
his 30s. He has become an engineer, responsible for constructing train
stations which, I suppose, from reading various Japanese novels, seem to be
an important part of Japanese life. He has become friendly with a woman in
her late 30s, and perhaps for the first time in his life he believes he
might be in love. But she tells him that he must first go back to the people
in his old school clique and find out why they had dropped him. This leads
us back to a few little adolescent dramas, and some touching reunions.
I enjoyed the book. It reminded me of some of his short
stories. Much better than 1Q84.
I started reading another book: Dallas
'63, by Peter Dale Scott. But after wading through about a quarter of
it, I gave up. It seemed to be doing nothing more than explaining the idea
that perhaps Lee
Harvey Oswald, the supposed assassin of John F. Kennedy, was being
used by James
Jesus Angleton (who was the head of the the CIA's counterintelligence
unit from 1954 to 1975) in an attempt to find a suspected Soviet mole within
Oswald was stationed in the top-secret air base in Japan
in the 1950s, servicing U-2 spy planes. Then he defected to Russia, married
returned with her to the United States. Therefore, even if he was not
directly an agent of the CIA, both the CIA and the Soviet KGB must have been
greatly interested in him. And so, according to the thesis of Peter Dale
Scott's book, the wily James Jesus Angleton planted records of Oswald in the
files of different divisions of the CIA, each of which differed from the
others in various obscure ways. The idea was that if it was found that the
KGB had a certain version of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, then that could
be traced to some particular filing cabinet within the CIA, and so the KGB
mole could then be identified.
All of this is undoubtedly interesting for the dedicated
disciple of assassination research. But I just like a good murder mystery,
and surely the murder of JFK provides us with the greatest such mystery of
them all. Such obscure facts related to Lee Harvey Oswald soon become
Looking around for something more interesting, I came
across this book by Norman Mailer. It doesn't really deal with JFK's murder.
Instead it deals with the background to the whole thing. It is an historical
novel, describing the life of the fictional Harry Hubbard, whose mentor in
the CIA is a character named Hugh Montague. In a final chapter, or appendix,
at the end of the book, Mailer tells us about his researches into the CIA
and his characterizations of both real and imagined people. Hugh Montague is
modeled on James Jesus Angleton. But Mailer felt that he had insufficient
knowledge of the character of Angleton to give him his real name. On the
other hand, many real-life CIA spooks do appear in the book. We read much
King Harvey and his dealings with Harry Hubbard. And then the
enigmatic E. Howard
Hunt plays a central role. All of the characters express great
admiration for Allen
Dulles, despite the fact that it was he who placed the seeds of evil
which have now come back to haunt the United States: the coup d'états
deposing Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran in 1953 and President Arbenz of
Guatemala in 1954.
Harry Hubbard is first stationed in Berlin to work with
"Bill" Harvey on the spy tunnel. Then he is in Uruguay, under E. Howard
Hunt. And finally he is in Miami, organizing the Bay
of Pigs with Hunt, then Operation
Mongoose with all the well-known characters in that business: Bill
Lansdale, and of course both Jack and Bobby Kennedy. Everything is
centered on the problem of Cuba. How to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Frustration grows. All those wealthy Cubans who had fled to Miami want
results. Not to mention the Mafia which had lost its casinos, brothels, and
what have you, in Havana.
The plan for the Bay of Pigs was to get a few hundred
fighters into the swamps on the south coast of Cuba, then to confront the
newly elected Jack Kennedy with the fact that they were in trouble. The CIA
expected him to order a full-scale invasion. But he didn't. Then came the Cuban Missle
Crisis. While the rest of the world was aghast at the prospect of
atomic warfare between the USA and the USSR, the CIA, the Mafia, and the
Cuban immigrants of Miami became euphoric, hoping for the great war of
annihilation which would free Cuba. But their hopes were dashed when Kennedy
and Khrushchev agreed to a reconciliation. And so we hear grumblings that
the solution might be to assassinate Kennedy, rather than Castro.
Is this what really happened? Various elements within
Operation Mongoose - which was being supervised by Bobby Kennedy - turning
their assassination efforts from Fidel Castro to Jack Kennedy. I suppose it
is the most sensible, plausible theory, notwithstanding the claims Lyndon
Johnson and his Texas Oil oligarchs also had for prime responsibility. But
Norman Mailer only hints at such things towards the end of the book.
The character of Harry Hubbard stands for what must have
been the classic CIA type of the 1950s and 60s - and perhaps for the CIA of
today as well. Ivy League, in particular Yale, Skull and Bones. White, rich,
old New England ancestry. On the side of Christianity in its battle against
the forces of Atheism. Much of the narration takes place through letters
exchanged between Harry and his lover, Kittredge, Hugh Montague's wife.
(Looking at the Wikipedia entry for James Jesus Angleton, Kittredge doesn't
really seem to correspond with his wife.) But then Harry also
becomes involved in a long, turbulent affair with Modene Murphy, who is
modeled on the real-life Judith
Campbell Exner, who was the lover of Jack Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, and
the Mafia don, Salvatore Giancana, all more or less simultaneously.
The whole book is immensely long. The printed edition
runs to 12 or 13 hundred pages. Norman Mailer filled the book with countless
obscure, antiquated words. But they were all in the Kindle dictionary, so
they must be official words in the English language. Many of these words,
while appearing to be extremely learned, refer to, or are associated with
properties related to the organs of human reproduction. In fact most of the
dialogue in the book is rude, primitive, aggressive. Can it be that people
in the CIA, when privately interacting with one another, carry on in such an
adolescent manner? Is this the reason they are making a mess of the world?
Or is it simply another instance of Norman Mailer's dirty mind, as we have
seen it in his other books?
Despite all of this, I enjoyed the book. For example I
hadn't really thought about all of the details of the Bay of Pigs. And so it
was interesting to zoom in on the various villages and roads around the bay,
using Google Earth. And I hadn't thought so much about E. Howard Hunt. Of
course he was one of the Watergate
burglars, or wiretappers, or whatever they were.
What was Watergate really about? Was it to do with the
CIA getting rid of Nixon, who they thought had gone too far, opening up
relations with China, withdrawing from Vietnam? This is no longer part of
the present book, since that essentially ends in 1964.
E. Howard Hunt was not only a CIA spook, alleged assassin
of JFK, and questionable operative of the Nixon White House. He also was a
very prolific writer, publishing huge numbers of spy stories and numbers of
(perhaps) non-fictional accounts of various goings on as well. Amazon seems
to lack interest in this character since only a couple of his books are
being offered in the Kindle format. But still, my interest is piqued.
Well, this is certainly not great
literature! But I did persevere, and I managed to read through this book all
the way to the end.
E. Howard Hunt was in the middle of all sorts of scandals
and sleaze at the highest levels of US politics, so I thought that the spy
"thrillers" that he wrote might be interesting. Perhaps they would give a
good picture of what life in Washington D.C. is like, written by someone who
really did live that life.
The narrator, Steve, is a lawyer, and he spends half of
the book drinking hard liquor. Straight whiskey, or on the rocks. Or
"building" a martini. The heroine is Alison, a rich woman senator who is
about to be nominated as a candidate for the presidency, presumably of the
Republican Party, given E. Howard Hunt's politics. In one scene towards the
end of the book, Alison is in the shower, getting ready for a pleasant
session in bed together with Steve, and he surprises her by " building" a
martini, taking off his clothes and joining her in the shower with two
glasses of liquor. This scene stuck in my mind on two levels. First of all,
it seems to me that even hardened alcoholics such as Steve and Alison would
have difficulties drinking their martinis while standing under a shower. But
also, since Alison is on the point of becoming the next President of the
USA, and she is a woman, my mind was inevitably drawn to the real-life woman
who is presently striving for this position. A preposterous vision.
Why describe the plot of this absurd book? There are four
murders which Steve deals with as a kind of woozy James Bond. And how can
one explain the fact that of the two reviewers at amazon (at least in its
German incarnation), one gave the book five stars and other one gave it four
I assume that all of E. Howard Hunt's other books were as
bad as this. A sad legacy of a wasted life
A very thoroughly researched
book. It seemed almost half of it consisted of notes and references
supporting the argument of the text, making it a long book to read.
Perhaps many people would say that the Kennedy
assassination is ancient history, irrelevant to the world today. But that is
not true at all. Our world would be quite different if it had not happened:
The present book does not really concern itself with all
of the minute technicalities of the actual shooting of President Kennedy:
the sequence of the shots fired, examinations of photos taken at the scene,
the eye-witness accounts, magic bullets, and all that. But when getting into
the book I was interested enough to find a series of nine YouTube videos,
television programs which were aired 10 or more years ago, giving a
fascinating picture of those things. The first episode of this series,
entitled "The Men who Killed Kennedy", is here.
I was particularly interested in episode
eight, giving a completely different angle to the picture we have of
the supposed assassin, or "patsy", Lee Harvey Oswald. On the other hand, the
book does give us a clear picture of the situation Oswald was in. And the
fact that the conspirators had established an equally complex assassination
scenario in Chicago was new to me. It also involved a patsy - like Oswald -
who had served in the secret U-2 base in Japan. His name was Thomas Arthur
Vallee. It failed because the Chicago police found
something they shouldn't have, and so president Kennedy cancelled the
trip to Chicago.
- Perhaps the Cold War would have ended quickly.
- The Vietnam War might not have occurred so that it would have remained
in the state it is now in: a peaceful, obscure country somewhere in
- The relatively calm relationship between the US and Cuba which we have
today might have been achieved 50 years ago.
- The bloodbath in Indonesia in which hundreds of thousands, if not
millions were killed and tortured would have been avoided.
It seems that the author of the book is a theologian, or
at least he studied theology as a young man. Thus he often quotes an obscure
Catholic monk, living somewhere in Kentucky, or whatever, in the 1950s and
60s, who wrote letters to people about the danger and immorality of all
these atomic bombs. He also makes much of a letter or two which the Pope of
those days wrote to Kennedy and to Khrushchev, dealing with the same
subject. The book sometimes becomes repetitious, returning again and again
to this, and also to an obscure speech Kennedy gave at the American
University in Washington D.C. shortly before his assassination, and to
tentative second-hand contacts he had with Khrushchev and Fidel Castro.
The CIA had been created just after the second world war
by President Truman for the purpose of giving the president the information
he needed, particularly that concerning foreign affairs. But unfortunately
the CIA got completely out of control after Allen
Dulles was appointed as its director. And then we have Curtis
LeMay on the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, whose goal in
life appeared to be the execution of a massive first strike against the
Soviet Union with all the combined atomic bombs at his disposal. But it was
not only these two. Almost all of those people in power around Kennedy
seemed madly set on atomic warfare. How strange! How crazy.
But what were those people, and what are the people in
those same positions today? They are the people behind big money. The
military-industrial complex. All the billions and trillions which flowed
into their pockets during the Vietnam war. And the huge money to be made
making atomic bombs. Not to mention the natural resources of Indonesia and
all of those other places around the world. And on the side of the Russians
who had suffered 20 or more million dead in the second world war, there was
a fear of the war those in the West seemed to be advocating.
While Kennedy and Khrushchev may have been the
representatives of the two opposing powers, they were ultimately faced with
the problem of dealing with this absurd situation. After Kennedy's
assassination, Johnson became president. As has often been shown, Johnson
had many reasons to wish Kennedy dead. He was on the point of sinking
beneath the weight of his own corruption when Kennedy's assassination saved
him. But the actual assassination and the cover-up must have been something
on a scale beyond that which Johnson alone could have accomplished. In the
end, all of these people: Allen Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, LBJ, the Cubans and
what have you, were happy to get rid of JFK. And then they also got rid of
Bobby Kennedy, and perhaps John
Kennedy, Jr. as well, a man who had the makings of a charismatic
candidate for highest office and who had vowed to find the truth behind the
So what has been the result of all this? LBJ didn't agree
to bomb the USSR - and thus the rest of the world - into smithereens.
Indeed, this isn't really what the conspirators wanted. They wanted the
money for "real" wars. So he gave them their Vietnam. Indonesia. And then,
when Russia gave up on communism, they - the heirs of those cold war
warriors - needed something new to keep the tax money flowing in. An eternal
war on Islam. And more recently, sanctions and aggression in the direction
Is this the "New World Order"? A "peaceful" coup, founded
on the assassination of President Kennedy? I suppose it is. For example it
is obvious that President Obama, a seemingly pleasant person in "normal"
life, has practically no say at all in his own government. Probably all
future presidents will also be nothing more than figureheads, putting on a
vacuous show for television, saying what they are told to say.
Is this a bad thing, this fake, pretend democracy for the
TV-addled brains of the masses? After all, the Roman empire lasted for
hundreds of years after it had ditched the idea of democracy. And the
reality is that there has been no atomic war in the more than 50 years since
the assassination of President Kennedy.
When I first arrived in Germany more than 40 years ago,
the air was often filled with the howls of air-raid sirens, testing them,
making people feel that the end of the world was near. Low flying jet
fighters, practicing their sorties at an altitude of just a few hundred
meters, often shattered the air with a sudden explosive sound, roaring
overhead. All that is now in the past. And yet there are still thousands of
atomic bombs, waiting for what?
There is no denying the fact that the existence of this
unimaginable power of destruction has prevented major war. But wars on a
smaller scale continue. Even the Kennedy which is portrayed in this book as
a purely visionary figure striving for peace could not have stopped these
wars if he had remained alive. For example the basic conflict between Islam
and The West is something which might have played out even in the absence of
the CIA, or indeed, of Israel.
In today's world there still are people wanting to use
atomic bombs. "Small", "tactical" ones. Eventually, perhaps in 50 or 100
years, or hopefully still longer, some hot-heads will certainly use them,
somewhere in the world. A few cities incinerated. A few million people
killed and maimed. And then a horrified world will banish again the thought
of atomic bombs for a couple of generations until a new generation of evil,
irresponsible hot-heads reappears. But I think that the danger of all-out
nuclear war is over. The extinction of humanity will have to wait for some
The subtitle is "The Life and Times
of Muddy Waters". For those who are as ignorant as I am, Muddy Waters was a
Blues musician. I had never heard of him before reading this book. One of
his recordings which was highly praised in the book was the 1972 version of
"Mannish Boy", which you can listen to here.
Of course there are many kinds of music, and many kinds
of musicians. One can like, or dislike these various kinds of music for one
reason or another, or for no reason at all. Muddy Waters certainly had great
emotional intensity. This especially inspired the English band The Rolling
Stones. For me, this heavy, slow music has little appeal. But I can imagine
that in a sufficiently drunken state, in some sleazy club, it would be
possible to dance to it.
According to the book, Waters was illiterate, alcoholic.
He produced myriads of children from countless women who had thrown
themselves at him after his concerts. Most of these women seem to have died
of overdoses of heroin. The children were, for the most part, abandoned to
their various fates.
Some might say that Muddy Waters should be admired merely
for the fact that he was of African-American ancestry, being born and
growing up in the Deep South of the United States. But such an attitude
would be racist, implying that these unpleasant attributes of Muddy Waters
would tend to apply to all people of his background. This is thankfully not
This novel is about Amory Clay, who
was born in 1908 into a family of middle, or even upper class pretensions in
England. Amory becomes a professional photographer and experiences the 20th
century up until her death by her own hand in 1985. The book contains many
shadowy, somewhat out of focus, black and white photos which, we are told,
she took during her life. And so the book has many parallels with Boyd's
earlier, much praised, Any Human Heart. But I preferred this book.
Not so much name-dropping, and Amory is a more pleasant character than Logan
Mountstuart, the hero of Any Human Heart. A beautifully written book.
A collection of short stories. They
are quite varied, many written as if they are part of a journal being kept
by the narrator. Most of the characters seem lonely, seeking fulfillment. It
has been a week or two since I finished the book, and frankly I must admit
that I've forgotten much of it. So I suppose that the stories were
forgettable, at least for me.
One thing that did strike me was that William Boyd
sprinkles his texts with French words which, obscurely, are also English.
(At least the Kindle dictionary considers them to be English.) For example
rather than using the simple, robust English word "red", he substitutes the
word "cerise" in many of the stories. This reminds me of the book of one of
those circumnavigators of Mt. Kailash which I read a while ago who also
avoided the color red, many times substituting the word vermilion.
But despite my forgetfulness, I do remember enjoying the
stories when I did read them. And according to his biography, William Boyd
divides his time between London and the South West of France, so we can
understand his love of the French language.
by Helen Dunmore
The story takes place in 1960, or
thereabouts, in London. Simon is a civil servant. The Admiralty. The
Official Secrets Act. Don't talk, for otherwise you will be thrown into some
horrible, filthy, dangerous dungeon, filled with brutal warders and other
On the other hand, life in the Civil Service is elegant,
debonair, at least for the higher-ups, all those Cambridge homosexuals: Guy
Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby and what have you. During his years at
Cambridge, Simon had a short but torrid affair with Giles, sealed with a
number of love letters. And so Giles invites him to have a career at the
Admiralty. Although Giles is a Soviet spy, he makes no attempt to recruit
Simon. He considers Simon to be a simple-minded fellow who has actually
married a woman named Lily, and has three children. How absurd! But
he still thinks fondly of Simon.
Giles takes secret papers home at night to photograph
with his Minox camera. But in a night of heavy drinking he falls down the
stairs, floundering in blood and a concussive fog with the incriminating
papers on a table up the stairs. Groping for a telephone, his first thought
is to call Simon to come and take the papers away. And so Simon, happily at
home with his wife and children, faithfully sets off in the middle of the
night to help Giles.
All of this leads to catastrophe. Prison. Lily's life
seems ruined. I suppose I shouldn't describe more of the plot, thus spoiling
the story for anyone who might want to read the book. As with all the books
of Helen Dunmore, this one was an absorbing read.
Andrei is a doctor in a hospital for
children in Leningrad. It is the year 1952. He, his wife Anna and her
brother Kolya are a small family, having survived the 900 day siege of World
War II. Apparently they were characters in Helen Dunmore's earlier book
about Leningrad. One day he is asked by a colleague to take over a
particular case of a sick boy. The boy's father is Volkov, a well-known
commissar in the Soviet communist secret police. Everybody is afraid. With a
wave of the hand, a wink of the eye, the slightest whim, Volkov could send
people away to be murdered, tortured, exiled for 50 years of hard labor in
But Andrei, foolish as he is, does not dismiss this
request of his colleague. He agrees to look at the boy, and so he is drawn
into his downfall. The boy has a cancerous tumor in his leg, which must be
amputated. Andrei is not a surgeon, but Volkov appoints him as the person
responsible for his son. Another doctor, a Jewish woman, Dr. Brodskaya, does
the surgery. All seems to go well. But then after some weeks, it is found
that the cancer has spread to the boy's lungs. Nothing can be done.
And so the punishment begins. Brodskaya is murdered,
probably after having to endure horrible tortures at the hands of the secret
police. Andrei is arrested and transported to the torture chambers in
Moscow. It was horrible to read about these things. At the end of the book,
Helen Dunmore provides a list of the books and articles she had used when
preparing this story. A number of them were true-life accounts of people who
actually survived this horror. Andrei was not subjected to the worst forms
of torture. He was often beaten by the guards, sometimes into
unconsciousness, but the main technique was to force him to stand
continuously, even for days on end. As I understand it, this was a standard
practice in the Nazi concentration camps, and similar things also occurred
in George W. Bush's Abu
Ghraib prison in Iraq.
In the book, Volkov becomes disgraced for some
unexplained reason, and so he commits suicide by shooting himself in the
mouth. We are disappointed that such an evil character is allowed such a
simple exitus from this earth. But then it is satisfying and even amusing to
dwell on the death
of Stalin, the monster behind that real-life evil. Since everybody was
afraid of him, and none of the doctors was as gullible and simple-minded as
was the Andrei of the story, he was left alone, untreated. Good riddance!
In this book, and presumably in real life, we have the
strange contrast between the purely evil behavior of the oppressors who seem
to enjoy tormenting people and the peaceful passivity of everybody else. We
have recently had the case of a 95 year old man who, in his youth, was a
soldier at the Auschwitz concentration camp being tried in a court of law
for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people. He may, or may not, have
been involved in the murder and torture of prisoners. The US experience in
Iraq was that many of the soldiers who were assigned to units responsible
for the torture of prisoners committed suicide. This shows that their fear
of disobeying orders was greater than their fear of death.
And so it was a gloomy, depressing book.
But I was confused about the title. What was the
betrayal? Both Andrei and Brodskaya did their best to save the boy's life.
And Anna certainly betrayed no one. What is betrayal anyway? Here
is the definition of the word from the dictionary of the Oxford University
Press. None of the meanings seem to fit. Perhaps it could be said that the
secret police, in the character of Volkov, betrayed the innocent, naive,
false expectations people might have had about the true character of
socialism and communism.
This is a true story, not a novel,
Dodd, together with his family, who was the ambassador of the United
States to Germany between 1933 and 1937. The book is mainly concerned with
the period between their arrival in Berlin in July 1933 and the Night
of the Long Knives at the end of June, 1934.
William Dodd was a professor of American history at the
University of Chicago. He was already 64 years old in 1933, but a year or
two before that he had felt that he needed time off from all his teaching
and administrative work in order to finish his great project, a history of
the Old South. He was friendly with various politicians in Washington, and
so he suggested that it would be nice if they would get him an ambassadorial
position in some small, obscure country somewhere where he would have lots
of free time to work on his book. When Roosevelt became President in 1933,
the position in Berlin had to be filled. No one else wanted it, and so Dodd
was asked. And that was the end of his book on the Old South!
In those days, as ambassador, one was expected to be
privately rich, bringing a flock of private servants: butler, cook,
chauffeur, and so on. Then you were expected to rent a huge mansion and
entertain all the other diplomats with continuous, lavish, privately
financed banquets, balls, and other entertainments. But Dodd had no private
income. He told Roosevelt that he would have to exist on his salary of
$17,000. But he was proud of this. He believed it important to demonstrate
the traditional American virtues embodied in the simple life.
And so the family, the wife Martha (or Mattie), the
daughter also named Martha, 24 years old, and Bill Jr., 28, arrived in
Berlin. At first they found everything to be wonderful. The ambassador had
studied for his doctoral degree many years before, before the First World
War, in Leipzig, and he had many fond memories of that time. It was summer.
The Tiergarten, that great park in the midst of Berlin, was full of life.
The family, and particularly Martha, was enthusiastic about everything new
which was happening in Germany. There were reports of some abuses, but
everybody seemed happy. Was this the New World, breaking away from the
unpleasant Depression which had settled elsewhere?
Before reading this book I had not really thought very
much about what things were like here in Germany in the 1930s. The vague
picture I had was that things must have started off relatively peacefully,
but then gradually the Nazis tightened their grip ever more, leading to the
Gestapo and the Death Camps. So it was interesting to read the book.
As soon as Hitler gained power, the Nazi's SA, or
"Sturmabteilung", which in English is called the "Storm Troopers", began
terrorizing the population of Germany. Perhaps they could be compared with
the Red Guard of Mao's China. All sorts of young men in ill-fitting brown
uniforms marched everywhere, assaulting Jewish people, foreigners, anybody
who failed to stop and watch their marches and obediently raise their hands
in the "Hitler salute", shouting "Heil Hitler". Then they would retire to
swill immense quantities of beer, perhaps afterwards going off in a drunken
state in the middle of the night to terrorize further people. The official
army of Germany, the Reichswehr, despised them.
The SS, or Schutzstaffel, were dressed in more elegant
black costumes and considered themselves to be the elite corps. Then a
further division, the Gestapo, or Geheime Statspolizei, thought to be
comparable to the American FBI, was also established. People who were
wronged by the SA sometimes took their grievances to the SS, or the Gestapo,
and they were often helped by reasonable, civilized people. Such was the
strange situation in the Germany of 1933, at least as described in this
book, based on first hand accounts, diary entries, letters, of the main
The Dodd family found a magnificent mansion to rent,
adjoining the Tiergarten, for only $150 per month. The deal was that the
owners, hugely wealthy Jewish bankers, would live in the attic, while the
ambassador would have the lower three floors. The thinking was that they
would thus be protected from the Nazis who would be reluctant to invade the
American Ambassador's residence.
Dodd's daughter Martha developed a very lively life in
Berlin. She was alive to everything. People said she was beautiful. The most
interesting young men wanted to be near her, always visiting the residence.
The grandson of the late Kaiser was in love with Martha. As was Boris
Vinogradov, a member of the Soviet Embassy and, unknown to Martha, a
member of the NKVD. She was in love with him and imagined eloping with him.
They went for long drives in the countryside, speaking openly, knowing that
there could be no secret microphones spying on their lives. But also Rudolf
Diels, the young, civilized, debonair head of the Gestapo was a lover
of Martha. She also took long drives with Diels in his car, and he told her
of his despair with the developments in Germany, his personal fears.
Searching through the internet, I see that it is planned
to make a movie of the book, starring Tom Hanks as William Dodd, and Natalie
Portman as Martha. This is just another example of the absurdity of this
modern Hollywood nonsense. How can we compare Tom Hanks with the dignified,
principled, unassuming Professor Dodd? And when looking at photos
of the real Martha, we see that she was the opposite of the dark, mysterious
Natalie Portman. Martha was the innocent, happy, all American girl. And she
happily entertained these disillusioned young men in the ambassador's
residence, even throughout the night.
Her father was initially enthusiastic, determined to be
open-minded to these new developments in Germany. As an historian, he
believed that history was a sequence of rational episodes which could be
described in the lecture room to a sober audience. But he gradually had to
accept the fact that the new rulers of Germany were irrational, chaotic men,
acting on the slightest spur of the moment. It was as if they were 16 year
old playground bullies, being alternatively cowed and then carried away in
hysterical waves of aggression.
Things came to a crisis in the Night of the Long Knives
when Hitler had many of the leaders of the SA murdered, along with many
other people. Rudolf Diels had already been replaced at the Gestapo by the
monster, Reinhard Heydrich, the Man with the Iron Heart (according to
Hitler). Diels escaped and survived the Nazi period. For both Martha and her
father, all delusions about the nature of the Nazis evaporated.
Dodd spent the remainder of his time in Berlin
trying to convince the State Department in Washington about the true nature
of the Nazis. But the old establishment, the "Pretty Good Club" of wealthy
insiders in Washington, having the good life in their mansions and country
estates, playing golf, sailing, hunting, occasionally taking time off to go
into their offices, were not interested. They were only interested in the
question about whether or not Germany would continue to pay the reparations
to their Wall Street banks which were agreed upon in the Versailles treaty
after the First World War, and which were the basis of the success of the
Nazi movement in Germany. How depressing it is to read of the telegrams
which the Pretty Good Club sent to the isolated Dodd in Berlin, pressing him
to forget everything else and concentrate on getting the Germans to keep
paying money to Wall Street. While there may have been wealthy Jewish Wall
Street bankers as well, it seems that they were excluded from the Pretty
Good Club of the State Department in Washington.
It is sad to think that in that period before the Night
of the Long Knives it would have been quite possible to have deposed Hitler
through the influence of Hindenburg. If the evil influence of the bankers of
the USA, England, France, and whatever had not existed, and if the diplomats
of the character of Dodd had been given more weight, then the Nazis could
easily have fallen. In that summer of 1934 in Berlin, everybody was
expecting such a happy outcome.
The story is about Ada Sibelius,
mainly concerned with the time in the 1980s when she is about 12 years old
and living at Savin Hill, which is on the waterfront, near Boston. Her
father, David, is the director of an artificial intelligence laboratory at
the fictitious Boston Institute of Technology, or BIT, not to be confused
with the real-life Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. The two of
them live alone, and Ada is home-schooled. That is to say, David teaches
her. She spends her days in his laboratory at the BIT, contributing just as
much as the various grad students who are also there.
But David gradually loses his mind to Alzheimer's
disease. He has a secret which he is not yet prepared to tell to Ada.
Instead he gives her one of those 5 1/4 inch floppy discs of those days
which were enclosed in paper envelopes with holes in the middle so that the
floppy disc reader could grab the floppy disc and turn it. Although those
discs only had a limited capacity of 128K or something, when Ada put it into
her computer, she found just a short, seemingly meaningless string of 53
capital letters. On the label stuck on to the envelope of the floppy disc,
David had written:
Dear Ada. A puzzle for you. With my love, your father, David
Gradually David became totally incoherent and eventually died. And so Ada
made copies of the 53 capital letters and asked all the puzzle solvers at
the BIT to try to solve it, but nobody could do it. Time passed away and it
became the year 2009. Ada was working for some sort of virtual reality
software venture out on the West Coast which was going nowhere, on the verge
of bankruptcy. But then she got a call from an old childhood friend who was
also working with computers. He had kept the original floppy disc of Ada's
puzzle, and he realized that the solution was very simple. It was a one-time
pad, where the words David had written on the label were the key to
the encryption. All the other puzzle solvers had failed since they did not
have the original floppy, and were thus unable to see David's words.
Thus we learn about David's secret. David was working on
a kind of chat-bot,
based on some sort of 1980s ideas, apparently using LISP, which, after all,
was the great thing at the real-life MIT in those days. His chat-bot was
named ELIXER, and it turned out that David's message was to ask ELIXER some
particular questions which it was programmed to respond to by printing out
David's life story.
The last couple of chapters take us into the future. It
is now the year 2025 or so. Ada has taken over the lab at BIT and she is
about to try out for the first time the newest version of virtual reality.
She puts some sort of apparatus over her head, and suddenly she is immersed
in a fantasy world where all her 5 senses are involved. Smell, touch, taste,
as well as just seeing and hearing. But also the sense of balance, the
feelings of her muscles, everything. She returns in this dream-like, virtual
world to the Savin Hill of the 1980s and talks with David, becoming again
the child Ada. I can't imagine how that is supposed to work. But still...
Perhaps her mind has become one with the computer. And then in a final
chapter it becomes the 2080s, all the Sibeliuses have died off and this
artificial intelligence, the future iteration of ELIXER, philosophizes to us
about life, the universe, and everything else.
Well, OK. I recently read an interesting essay about such
things. Assuming that it would be possible to up-load people's minds into
computers, what would be the consequences? After all, part of the ritual of
the Church is that the congregation declares in prayer a belief in eternal
life. And so, assuming that in the far future tireless machines will be
maintaining the computers where all the minds of the people are stored, then
life within the computer would seem to be able to go on forever, or at least
for a very long time. And being thus helplessly stored in a computer, it
would be possible to subject some souls to eternal pleasure - Heaven - and
other souls to eternal torture - Hell. A true manifestation of theological
dogma. What a horrible idea!
Returning to reality, in the story, both David and Ada
were using Apple Macintoshes in their 1980s existences. I had an Apple II in
the early 1980s which did have 5 1/4 inch floppy discs, but then in 1985 I
got my first Macintosh - a "fat Mac" with 512K of memory - which had the
newer 3 1/2 inch floppies, enclosed in a hard plastic covering. I thought
this was more advanced than the original IBM-PCs with the 5 1/4 inch
floppies. But then I don't understand why David gave Ada the larger floppy,
which wouldn't have fit into her Macintosh. I suppose this confusion of the
author, Liz Moore, must be due to her being one of these modern people who
think it is cool to spend huge amounts of money on their fashionable Apple
appliances without really being aware of the technicalities. But I gave up
on Apple over 20 years ago.
The author is an Australian, and so
the story takes place in Melbourne. Helen, or "Hel", lives alone in her
suburban house with the children next door often coming to visit. She writes
for a newspaper. She is over 60 and her daughter lives somewhere away. Her
friend, Nicola, also well into her 60s, lives in Sydney.
Nicola is, or at least imagines she is, a kind of hippy,
living in a simple little house in the bush, just across from the elegant,
expensive villas of Palm Beach on the North Shore of Sydney. Nicola comes
from a family which had money, and she imagines that she herself is very
elegant. But she has cancer. And so suddenly Helen receives a message that
Nicola plans to come to Melbourne to stay with her for three weeks, during
which she will be going to a private clinic of alternative medicine.
The clinic turns out to be a sleazy place with
disreputable people. Nicola is subjected to liter-wise injections of vitamin
C, steam baths, and what have you. She comes back to the house vomiting,
fainting, sweating, all through the night. Helen is exhausted. Not enough
sleep. She must replace the soiled sheets on Nicola's bed numbers of times
throughout the night. But the worst thing is that Nicola pretends that it is
all wonderful. The "doctors" at the clinic are wonderful. Helen is
wonderful. The vitamin C is wonderful. She presents the world, and
especially Helen, with a tortured, false smile, going on and on, pretending
to be wonderfully happy, but really being a tragic mess. This falseness,
refusal to accept her condition, wears Helen down to the point where she
feels like screaming.
And so, despite the fact that it was lightly written, it
was a depressing read. After all, there are many people with cancer, and I
suppose many of them refuse to accept reality. The fact that we all must
But in the end, after an emotional catharsis which clears
the air, Helen takes Nicola to a real doctor who Nicola decides that she
likes. She resumes a course of "normal" medicine and returns to the
apartment of her niece in Sydney. In this more accepting state of mind,
Helen, as well as many others, often come to visit so that Nicola lives out
her life in harmony, surrounded by loving friends.
by Liz Moore
Another story about people who don't
fit in. Particularly Arthur Opp, who is tremendously fat. Between 500 and
600 pounds. He lives alone in his house in Brooklyn. In fact he just lives
on the main floor since he is too fat to either climb the stairs to the
upper floors or go down the stairs to the cellar. Nobody visits him. It has
been 10 years since anybody else has entered his house. All this is possible
owing to the internet, where he can order things to be delivered at the
door. And of course food, tremendous quantities of food are ordered online
and delivered to his door. The post is both delivered and taken away from
his mailbox at the front door, and he puts bags of garbage out next the the
front door. The garbage people are so nice as to climb the steps of his
stoop to take the bags away.
My theory is that these people who are obsessed with food
must continuously eat owing to the fact that they feel that something is
missing. Is it vitamin C, or D, or whatever, or calcium, or fat, or iron? Or
is too much sugar upsetting the whole balance? For example, many people
these days seem to think it is normal to drink coca cola, rather than water,
whenever they are thirsty. And then some people might overeat when they feel
The former chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, has grown
tremendously fat, although I don't think he has yet reached the 500 pound
mark. He has already reached 86 years of age, thus proving that extreme
obesity does not necessarily lead to a short life. Indeed, the chancellor
before him, Helmut Schmidt, lived to be 97 years old. While he was not
obese, he smoked like a chimney, going through many packs each day. I think
these two examples demonstrate the idea that self-satisfaction is much more
important when it comes to longevity than healthy living. And of course
Churchill is another example of this.
But unfortunately the Arthur Opp of the story is not
self-satisfied. He is ashamed of himself. His mother has long ago died, but
his father lives on as a respected man in England, having no personal
contact, yet sending him funds providing a regular income. The father left
Arthur's mother owing to the fact that, back then, she was also becoming
Still, Arthur does have one small consolation. Twenty
years ago, when he wasn't quite as fat, he was a professor of English in a
college in New York. One of the students in his seminar was Charlene, a
small, shy, woman whose interest in literature was, at best, basic. Still,
Arthur fell in love with Charlene. But then she left and Arthur withdrew
from the world, only occasionally exchanging letters with her. Unknown to
Arthur, she also has become degenerate, an alcoholic. She has a son, Kel,
who, despite his mother, excels at sport, baseball in particular. And so the
book becomes a sort of coming of age story of Kel. I very much enjoyed it.
author, who, apart from being a novelist is a professor of literature
at an English university, tells us that she admires, and has often based her
teaching on the novels of George Eliot. She discovered the interesting fact
that George Eliot's German publishers were the firm of Duncker &
Humbolt, which still exists. Back then in the 19th century there were a
couple of Duncker brothers running the business. Patricia Duncker, our
modern-day author, thus decided to write a novel in which one of the
Duncker, is the central figure. However if you take a look at
Maximilian's entry in the Wikipedia, you will see that his character was
very different from the playboy which Patricia imagined. Also Maximilian was
the eldest son of the founder of the firm, Karl Duncker, yet Patricia
Duncker describes him as being the younger of the brothers. And so we should
not take this novel seriously as an historical novel.
Instead Patricia Duncker has decided to have a bit of
fun, making a mixture of historical personages and imagined fantasies. The
novelist George Eliot
comes into all this, and much of the fun involves her last novel, Daniel
Deronda. Thus the Sophie of the present book is a version of
Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. And then the "Sybil" is the novelist
George Eliot herself.
I became irritated with the constant use of the term "The
Sybil" throughout the book. It seems to me that Sybil is a girls name,
whereas Sibyl is the more usual spelling for those female oracles of ancient
Greece. Was George Eliot a Sibyl? In any case, Sybil was not included among
her given forenames.
It must be confessed that in my limited knowledge of 19th
century literature, I have never read anything by George Eliot. Indeed, in
my ignorance, when getting into the book, reading about The Sybil visiting a
German spa, being worshiped by all the English tourists, I wondered why they
weren't French - until I suddenly realized that I was confusing George Eliot
with George Sand. All these women Georges!
Anyway, both Maximilian and The Sybil worship an ancient
philosopher by the name of Lucian. He was apparently a Roman who observed
the growth of Christianity and commented on the disaster to which it would
lead. But if we try to find Lucian in some more serious source we soon
discover that he is just another figment of Patricia Duncker's imagination.
Perhaps the character is vaguely based on the philosopher Lucretius,
who certainly knew nothing of Christianity since he lived in the B.C. era,
although later Christians considered his teachings to be anathema.
I enjoyed the book, and it has motivated me to read
George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.
Back in the early 1970s, as a
graduate student, I attended a summer school, or conference, at the
University of Brisbane. Jürgen
Moser gave a series of lectures which were concerned with the n-body
problem in Newtonian mechanics. I can't remember why I went since I wasn't
really interested in such things, but still... I have found a
paper of his in the internet which he published back then in 1974. And
I remember that he was a most impressive mathematician. But my memories are
dominated by the oppressive heat and humidity of Brisbane during that
summer. A wife of one of the participants, an older American professor,
complained that her husband went through numbers of perspiration-soaked
shirts every day. I might be wrong, but I think Moser must have been
describing a theorem concerning the measure of the set of quasiperiodic
solutions within the set of all possible solutions. This would be the Kolmogorov-Arnold-Moser
theorem. This is pure - not applied - mathematics. Not really
applicable to the real world. After all, it's obvious that our Solar System
is going along in a relatively stable way for millions of years. And anyway,
the general theory of relativity has replaced Newtonian mechanics as being
the presently favored description of gravity. One can say that - in
principle at least - almost all solutions to the n-body problem are chaotic,
but in practice, at least when considering "normal" celestial events, the
chaos can be ignored.
The present book was written by a Chinese in China. It
starts out by describing the horrible public execution of a professor of
physics during the Cultural Revolution. His daughter is a witness to the
disgusting business, and she plays a role throughout the book, becoming
embittered against Chinese civilization and even humanity as a whole.
Therefore it seems that in present-day China, the author, Cixin Liu, does
not fear reprisals when criticizing this history of the Communist Party with
its monstrous Chairman Mao. Are people in China now free to write what they
want? Or will the past repeat itself, with Cixin Liu ending up in a
concentration camp to atone for his errors?
One way or the other, I found the book to be strange, but
interesting. Just as I know very little about China, hardly imagining
anything to do with it; in the same way, the characters and the story of
Cixin Liu's book are almost all Chinese, doing things in China, with the
"outside world" playing almost no role. An interesting perspective.
The story concerns the star system Alpha
Centauri, which consists of two stars, plus a third one which is far
away from the other two. Thus the motion of the system departs so minutely
from true periodicity as to be almost totally ignored. However in Cixin
Liu's story, everything there is totally chaotic. Some sort of intelligent
life exists on a planet careering about the system, and they discover that
the Earth would be a much better place to live, since things here are not so
chaotic. (Is this a comment of Cixin Liu about the state of Chinese
So they decide to come over to the Earth and establish
themselves in here. As a pleasant change from the usual contemporary science
fiction nonsense, the author does not burden us with jumps through
wormholes, or hyper-warp drives, or whatever it is. Instead the Alpha
Centaurians must take their time, remaining in the real world, and
calculating 450 years for the invasion fleet to reach the Earth.
Unfortunately though, Cixin Liu did manage to confuse himself with a bit of
quantum gobbledygook, imagining sending an "intelligent" proton (whatever
that is supposed to be) to Earth at near the speed of light, then having it
quantumly "entangled" with another proton which they retain back in Alpha
Centauri. Thus (???) this other proton, being also intelligent, can
instantly report on events on Earth. Such nonsense is common amongst people
who do not understand the basics of the theory of relativity. In fact it is
the equivalent of being able to travel into the past, something which is
impossible on purely logical grounds.
The Alpha Centaurians have a somewhat more advanced
understanding of technical and scientific matters than we do, but they fear
that in the intervening 450 years we might advance sufficiently in order to
be able to fend off their challenge. And thus they develop a strategy to
hinder such possible progress in human development. While communicating via
radio signals with the Earth, they manage to convince many people that they
are all-knowing gods who are there to punish humanity for its evil ways.
Instead of pursuing science, humanity should return to the simple, good life
of the past. Do away with polluting machines. Find alternative forms of
energy. And if humanity refuses to obey these commands, then the gods will
punish the Earth with climate change!
Thus we see that, happily, there do exist some Chinese -
exemplified by Cixin Liu - with a very good sense of humor!
I see that he has written a whole series of further books
concerned with the invasion of the Alpha Centarians, but this is enough for
The story is much too complicated to
put into a nutshell, and so, instead, a summary can be found in the Wikipedia.
This is the first time I have read anything by George Eliot. She certainly
had a dense, erudite style of writing, full of obscure words. And yet it was
an interesting story, perhaps relevant to some things in the world today.
On the one hand we have the heroine, Gwendolen, a complex
character, full of herself, beautiful, a symbol of the degeneration of
Western Civilization, at least as it was perceived back then in Victorian
England. On the other we have Daniel Deronda and his beloved wife Mirah,
both perfect specimens of the purity of the Jewish "race". At the end of the
book they travel away to the "East" to further the cause of goodness, far
from Gwendolen and her dead, rich, evil husband, Henleigh Grandcourt.
Is it sensible to follow the Nazi way of thinking and
consider Jewishness as a racial characteristic? And is the modern nation of
Israel something which is based purely on the Jewish race? Well why not?
After all, many other nations define themselves in racial terms. The
Japanese certainly consider themselves to be a pure race, set apart from the
rest of the world, closed to the immigration of foreign, racially impure
people. And I am sure that many English people also think of the English
race as being uniquely civilized, leading the world in all that is good. But
since I am a migrant, having lived for long periods of my life in three
different countries on three different continents, I am not in favor of such
racial thinking. And thus it seems to me that the arguments of Shlomo
Sand not only make sense, but they are more appealing than those
other, racial arguments.
George Eliot was writing at a time when all the unhappy
episodes of the 20th century were far away. Apparently she - an agnostic in
religious matters - decided to learn the Hebrew language as an intellectual
challenge. Her teacher, Emanuel Deutsch, was a Hebrew scholar at the British
Museum. She became fascinated by his
ideas about Judaism and Zionism. All of this twenty years before Theodor
Herzl. And as with many of those
Hollywood types: Madonna, Mick Jagger, Brittany Spears, Paris Hilton,
and so on, she dabbled in the the Kabbalah, esoteric Judaism, the
transmigration of souls and what have you.
George Eliot deals with Judaism by dividing it into two
opposite groups, the good and the evil. For her, the evil Jew is the
pawnbroker, the rich banker, which she dismisses without much thought. But
surely it is part of the tragedy that during medieval times, when
Christianity forbid the practice of taking interest on loans, it fell to the
Jews to become the money lenders. And often they were forbidden from taking
on other professions. Then she considers the poor Jew, living in a slum,
full of religion, to be the essence of goodness.
What a distortion of reality! In the 19th century, and
especially in the 20th, people of Jewish ancestry who were neither money
lenders, nor poor, nor particularly religious, were often the leaders of
human achievement. So many Nobel prizes in the sciences. Great musicians,
But despite this, I enjoyed the book. Gwendolen was such
an interesting, complicated character; Grandcourt a wonderful monster. In
comparison, Deronda and Mirah were boringly one dimensional. And George
Eliot's philosophising, despite being irritatingly erudite, was often
Again, a complicated story with
numbers of different subplots and many different characters. The reason for
this is that those 19th century authors wrote their voluminous books in
serial form - in this case in eight shorter episodes - rather like these
modern-day television series - which 19th century readers would have had to
buy, one after the other, mirroring the business model of the modern-day
Amazon Prime video streaming system. But happily for the modern reader, we
can download all of the episodes of those 19th century novels in one go for
free from Project Gutenberg, or else we can borrow a thick volume from the
library where everything is again printed together as if it were one
complete novel. The disjointedness meant that it took me some time to get
into the story, but eventually the different subplots do come together to
give us a satisfying ending.
As before it would be nonsense to try to describe the
plot in a nutshell. I found the story to be more satisfying than that of
Daniel Deronda. To be honest though, I'm writing this review a month or two
after finishing the book, and having read other things, together with the
complexity of the story, meant that I had forgotten much of the detail. A
quick look at the Wikipedia page for Middlemarch brought everything back
into my mind. I find it difficult to imagine that a young woman of the
character of Dorothea could commit herself so to the ridiculous Casaubon.
But who knows? She becomes a saint-like figure of religious obsession, thus
showing that anything is possible in the minds of these young women. And
then we have the marriage of Rosamond to Lydgate, demonstrating a different
distortion of the marriage state. Perhaps the theme of the book is how to
get entangled in a bad marriage. And the sub-theme is how to make a mess of
your death by writing a will which makes everybody hate your memory.
All of this is quaintly interesting, made more so by
George Eliot's learned and amusing observations on life.
This one was written towards the
end of Kurt Vonnegut's life. Perhaps he was thinking about what the world
might really be like without him, not only now when his books can be found
everywhere but far into the future. A million years in the future.
I find it strange to think so far. Back in the 1950s and
60s it seemed that humanity would soon blow itself up with atomic bombs so
that the earth could get back to going on with its existence without us. But
contrary to expectation, here we are, a couple of decades further on, and
people still haven't blown themselves up. So how long will humanity continue
to exist in its present form?
My time on the earth will certainly be finished within
the next 20 or 30 years. Thus in a certain sense, humanity, and everything
else, will have ceased to exist for me. And a similar thought applies to
everybody else as well. Nevertheless, going in the opposite direction, into
the past, it seems that the earth existed before my birth. This fact can be
proved, for example by looking at old photographs. We see that the earth
existed in a black and white, rather blurry, colorless form. Old movies show
time juddering along. Still, old paintings exist which, when all the dust
and grime is washed away, prove that some aspects of the previous earth were
I've given a lot of thought to all this, and it seems to
me that the basic essence of things doesn't change with time. There was no
big bang, and the universe will not dissipate into nothingness far in the
future. On the other hand, humanity does change with time. Some people
subscribe to the view that humanity should become more vegetable-like,
discarding the large brains it is blessed with in order to defer as far as
possible the time when humanity becomes extinct. This feeling is
encapsulated in the phrase "save the earth". An absurd concept. Perhaps the
motivation is the fear of individual death being transformed into a hope for
the everlasting and eternal life of humanity as a species.
The plot of the present novel is, as is typical of Kurt
Vonnegut, bizarre. Women fall ill with a sickness which renders them unable
to reproduce. This sickness applies everywhere on earth except on the
Galapagos Islands and the waters immediately surrounding them. Thus the
process of natural selection alters humanity. We become a new species of
whale with a greatly reduced brain size. No hands to make things. Any of the
female whale creatures which happens to swim away from the Galapagos, or go
onto land not in the Galapagos, immediately becomes sick and infertile.
Well, OK. But I can't imagine how this sickness is
supposed to work. And anyway, I like the fact that humanity is having a wild
time on this earth, living it up, inventing all sorts of new things,
blasting out into space, connecting everything with glass fibers, solving
great problems in mathematics.
How will it all end? Who knows. The idea that humanity,
in its present form, will still exist, say in 10,000 years from now, seems
to me to be difficult to imagine. I would bet against it. And a million
years in the future? Despite everything people may do, the planet earth will
continue along nicely for the next million years. Only after thousands of
further millions of years will the sun gradually expand, eventually
engulfing the earth and transforming its particles into the building blocks
of new worlds in the future.
This was a more coherent story than
most of those other episodic, serialized Victorian novels. It seems that
there is much of George Eliot's real life in this novel. The author can be
thought of as the heroine, Maggie Tulliver, and Tom as her real-life brother
Isaac. But the real-life father of Mary Ann Evans (alias George Eliot) did
not really have the evil attributes of the father Tulliver of the book.
Again, this was a voluminous novel. For me it was spoiled
by the ridiculously melodramatic ending. Otherwise it was a moving
description of the false expectations women were subjected to in Victorian
In 1913 the English mathematican G.
H. Hardy received a letter from
Ramanujan, the obscure Indian clerk of Madras, containing a list of
complicated formulas, some of which were known, but others quite new. After
studying the letter with his collaborator, John Littlewood, Hardy decided to
invite Ramanujan to come to England and work with him at Trinity College,
Cambridge. Many books have been written about this collaboration; the
present book is an historical novel, imagining what those characters were
feeling during those times.
Hardy was, apparently, homosexual, as is the author,
David Leavit. And so the book dwells especially on this theme, imagining
various torrid scenes with Hardy playing either the passive or the active
role. Nobody imagines that either Ramanujan or Littlewood were homosexual.
Thus their possible loves and affairs assume only a secondary stature, as
does the pure mathematics which is really at the center of this whole drama.
It seems that Hardy's ambition was to prove the Riemann
Hypothesis, and he hoped that his collaboration with Ramanujan might lead to
a proof. Despite this, now, 100 years later, the hypothesis is still open.
When walking about in Cambridge we are impressed with the
beauty of the ancient architecture, and Trinity College seems to stand out.
One wonders what it must be like to actually live in the place. I am sure
that now it would be a wonderful experience. From an intellectual point of
view, Trinity College has always been simply magnificent. Look at the list
of Nobel Prize, or Fields Medal winners. But what was it like 100 years ago
when women were excluded and most of the inhabitants were rich, brash
Perhaps my thoughts here are being influenced by the fact
that the book places such emphasis on homosexuality. After all, married men
could not be resident. Back in those days young men went to boarding school
and then on to university. Girls and then women were excluded. Ramanujan had
left his child bride back in India in the (fearsome, according to the book)
care of his mother. Littlewood - again according to the book - went out by
train on the weekends to the tip of Cornwall where he stayed with the more
or less estranged wife of a London doctor, secretly having a child with her,
but without the "affair" becoming closer. All three of these characters, as
well as all the other "dons" in residence at Trinity, spent their days
unencumbered by the daily distractions of home and family. If the book is to
be believed, and surely David Leavit has examined in detail all of the
available private correspondence of these people (Hardy, John Maynard
Keynes, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and what have you), then it
would seem that their excess energies were expended in outbursts of
pointless verbosity. While they may have achieved greatness, their private
lives were often full of unhappiness.
This is a book for English readers,
who will undoubtedly shed a tear or two for the main character. The unusual
title is not meant to imply that he is filthy. Instead the word "Filth"
stands for the expression, "Failed in London, try Hong Kong". (Although the
"k" of "Kong" is missing in this acronym.) According to the story, the
expression should be applied to English lawyers.
The main character is not a particularly pleasant person.
He was a lawyer in the British colony of Hong Kong, amassing a large fortune
as some of these lawyers do, representing the interests of moneyed clients.
But then he switched sides, becoming a judge. This brings a certain degree
of respect, but the monetary rewards are much reduced.
He is now in his 80s, having retired years ago to the
peaceful countryside of the south of England. His wife has died and he is
becoming somewhat confused. There were no children, so he is alone, hoping
that his money and his reputation will keep things going until the end. We
encounter him searching for something: companionship? truth? It is all a bit
And so gradually we learn about his childhood. He was
born in Malaya, his mother died, his father wanted nothing to do with him.
After five years living with the local villagers, he was sent alone to
England to two Aunts who take the money the father has sent, sending him to
the cheapest possible foster home they can find, in the depths of Wales,
where he, as well as another boy and two other girls are horribly
mistreated. During an extreme episode where the foster mother has worked
herself into an hysterical state, tormenting the poor, defenseless children,
the child, the Young Filth, pushes her down the stairs where she expires in
her own evil. Good riddance!
He has relegated this memory to some closed chamber in
his mind where it has secretly governed his life. Now, meeting the long-lost
fellow childhood sufferers, this memory is released, and so in the end Old
Filth buys himself a first-class airline ticket from Heathrow to the
somewhere in the Far East where he emerges, smells the fragrant tropical
air, and then expires.
Are these tales of British colonial nostalgia meant for
the rest of us? For some of those living in some of those colonies, perhaps
In contrast to most of these other
novels about mathematics, the author, Apostolos Doxiadis, has studied
mathematics and thus knows what he is talking about. The story is that the
narrator is living in Greece as a young boy in the 1950s, and he is curious
about his uncle who is living as a kind of recluse, hated by his father and
Petros' other brother who both run the family business, supporting Uncle
Petros. As the story develops we learn that the imaginary Petros was a
mathematician, visiting and working with Hardy, Littlewood, and Ramanujan in
Cambridge back then in the early 1900s, eventually becoming a professor in
Munich. But then he becomes obsessed with Goldbach's Conjecture. That, along
with the Riemann Hypothesis is still unsolved now, in the year 2016.
Goldbach's conjecture is that every even whole number
greater than 2 is the sum of two prime numbers. So this is number theory.
Very complicated! For hundreds of years many people have thought about
numbers, producing more and more subtle results. Goldbach's
"weak" conjecture has recently been proven in the year 2013, ending a
250 year struggle. The weak conjecture is that every odd whole number
greater than 5 can be written as the sum of three prime numbers.
But to return to the story of the book, the young
narrator tells Uncle Petros that he also wants to become a mathematician. So
Petros says that he will give him a test to see if he has the potential for
such a career. Namely he describes the Goldbach Conjecture and says that if
the boy can solve it during the summer holidays without consulting any
books, then he might become a mathematician. Of course this is very unfair.
So the nephew studies mathematics just to spite Uncle Petros.
The real story though is about Petros. He works away in
secret, afraid that somebody else might steal his ideas. This is the reason
he refuses to publish some of his partial results which of themselves would
have been interesting for other mathematicians. On a visit to Cambridge he
talks to Hardy about these results and is astonished to learn that somebody
else has also found them years ago and published them. Thus he publishes
nothing, and so loses his position at Munich. In the end he is defeated.
Is this what pure mathematics is all about? I think most
mathematicians are happy to publish lots of obscure little papers in the
hope of securing a tenured position. Thus it is all the more remarkable,
even wonderful, that somebody of the stature of Andrew
Wiles was able to prove the even more famous and seemingly intractable
Fermat's Last Theorem.