Riddle of the Sands
Eric S. Margolis:
Notation is Not the Music
The Big Short
Tan Twan Eng:
Garden of Evening Mists
We Need New
John M. Hull:
Tale for the Time Being
Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
E. Howard Hunt:
Garden of Beasts
The Spare Room
Three Body Problem
on the Floss
Uncle Petros and
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
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 Margolis.
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 Americans.
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 calm down.
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
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 music.
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
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
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, are free.
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
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 defined.
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 increase.
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
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
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 with art.
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
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
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 of study.
(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 defective.
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 years later.
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 totally routine.
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 growing.
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
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
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
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 results.
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
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
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 artist"?
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
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
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
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
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
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 revolution.
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
- 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 times. Mungo
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 of labor.
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
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
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
'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 the CIA.
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 Marina,
and 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 boring.
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 about William
King Harvey and his dealings with Harry Hubbard. And then the
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 Harvey, Edward
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
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 stars?
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 Asia.
- 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
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
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 earlier assassinations.
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 of Russia.
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
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
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 the case.
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
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
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
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 inmates.
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
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
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 Siberia.
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, about William
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
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 characters.
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
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
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
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
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
Dear Ada. A puzzle for you. With my love, your
father, David Sibelius.
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
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
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
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 die.
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
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 lonely,
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 rather fat.
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
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 brothers, Maximilian
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
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
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
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
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 civilization?)
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
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 me.
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
ideas about Judaism and Zionism. All of this twenty years
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, mathematicians.
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 amusing.
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
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 also colorful.
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 England.
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
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 sad.
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.
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 not.
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.
"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
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.