This year (2020)
Previous years: 2019;
Heart of the Valley
A World Away
in the Darkness
Woman in White
Forgetting the Whale
Dogs and Walls
Sherwin B. Nuland:
Tan Twan Eng:
Gift of Rain
We Shall Be Entirely Free
Morning Like a Bird
The heroine of this book is a bird, a "dunnock", something I had never heard of before, but
apparently the more common name is the "hedge sparrow". The story takes
place somewhere in the English countryside, near a couple of farms. And we
follow the drama of this little hedge sparrow through a year of its life.
There are so many of these little birds peeping and
tweeting away, particularly in the summer. All sorts of different species,
yet they all look pretty much the same to me. Not like the birds of
Australia which are very distinctive. But how do they survive this horrible
northern European winter? We hang seed dispensers from the the branches of
trees in the winter, resulting in much activity in the garden during these
cold, wet, muddy months. And somehow the tiny birds survive. Then in the
spring and the summer the air is filled with their calls. But we have
remarked on the fact that in recent years there seem to be fewer bees and
butterflies compared with a few years ago. Is it all that glyphoast
which the farmers are spraying everywhere?
The book starts off in the
winter. Many of the birds die of cold and hunger. But then our little
sparrow finds a mate, and they take refuge and some warmth in a barn. When
the warmth of spring returns they make a nest in a hedge directly next to
a driveway, which is soon destroyed by a car squeezing by another car and
scraping the hedge. Then they try somewhere else, later in the summer.
The story then shifts to
Africa. We follow the trials of a cuckoo, flying for days across the desert,
then across the Mediterranean Sea, and France, to finally arrive in the
woods near our sparrow's farm. And so the drama begins. The horrible cuckoo
baby kills the sparrow babies, one after the other. But with the advantage
of having hatched a couple of days earlier, and with much endurance and
agility, one of the sparrow babies survives.
Indeed, I hate the sound of those cuckoos. Germans make
quite a fetish out of their rules and regulations for hunting, so I suppose
they must be a protected species. But what is the good of such parasitic
Well, I suppose all of these things are relative. After
all, the sparrows themselves live by eating up all the insects and worms
that they can find. Such is the struggle for life. The thing that I don't
understand is why sparrow evolution has not advanced to the point of being
able to distinguish a cuckoo baby from a sparrow baby, which would enable
the grown-up sparrows to rid their nest of such little monsters.
The story is concerned with adaptation. For one
reason or another, children are sometimes left without parents. They might
then be put into a strange family and brought up as children of the new
family. Or, usually less happily, they are put into some sort of institution
for dealing with the situation.
In the book, things start off with a mother who has lost
herself in a drug-induced haze and various, more or less violent male
partners. She has two children: Kerry, an eight year old daughter who is
looking after the two year old son. She is keeping herself and her baby
brother alive using desperate measures. But then they are taken into care.
The baby son is adopted by a wealthy, open, friendly family near Primrose
Hill, and he thrives, eventually becoming a barrister in the law courts of
London. He has changed his name to Noah. Kerry was put into a home with
other orphans and has now become a cleaning lady, privately cleaning other
peoples houses for some small, minimum wage, living in a London slum.
Kerry remembers her brother well, but the adoption people
do not tell her how to get into contact with him. Only if he were to contact
them would they release such information.
We follow Noah and his problems in marriage. He seems to
be an almost perfect husband to his wife, and father to their daughter. But
his complaining wife says that he is not sufficiently open. He does not talk
to her enough. And so she wants a divorce.
Is she being unreasonable? Aren't women often naturally
more talkative than men? But more than that, we must think about the
situation of a person living as an adopted child in a family. The family
might be as friendly and loving as can be, but in the background is the
unspoken thought that the ties are not so strong. If things go wrong might
the adopted child not be just as easily returned to wherever it came from? I
can well imagine that adopted children become careful, guarded, cautious
with their families. And this could become a basic way of dealing with life.
Unfortunately the book then became a gushingly emotional
story about the sister developing cancer, finding the long lost brother
using a detective agency, deceiving him at first about her motives (ensuring
that Noah becomes the guardian of her 10 year old son), and then dying and
being eulogized by everybody, including the brother. I would have preferred
to find out more about what Noah's wife was thinking, and what Kerry really
thought of her brother without all of this unrelated drama.
This is not a novel, instead it is a brief history
of the Crusades. The subtitle of the book is, "The Case for the Crusades",
thus telling us that they were justified in some way. Indeed, thinking about
the books I have read, from Gibbons vast history through to a book
describing the Crusades as written down by contemporary Arab observers;
throughout all of these writings we have the impression of primitive,
violent hoards, invading peaceful, civilized lands, leaving chaos
everywhere. Was Pope Urban II nothing but a wild rabble-rouser at Clermont,
addressing a mob of ignorant peasants on the 27th of November, 1095?
Or is all of this just a distortion of things as they
really were? Did Gibbon become carried away with his anti-clerical posture?
And was it only natural that the Arab inhabitants of the lands being invaded
thought of themselves as being civilized and the invaders as brutal
aggressors? What were the causes of the Crusades?
Going back further in time to the year 600, we find that
most of the Mediterranean world was Christian. And judging, for example, by
the Confessions of Saint Augustine, people were free to think in
various ways about philosophy and religion, continuing the open tradition of
ancient Rome. People went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, perhaps out of
curiosity, or religious fervor, or to atone for their sins. Then, around 620
Mohammad appeared on the scene, preaching religion but also becoming a warrior, uniting the tribes of Arabia,
first through attacks on caravans and later in pitched battles. The Arab
warriors who came after Mohammad quickly conquered many further lands,
It is said that the system which developed was tolerant,
world-open. Arab learning preserved the "dark ages" from pure ignorance. But
is this really true?
Islam is a utopian system. Yet utopias are always harsh,
intolerant. Free thinking cannot be tolerated. What other explanation is
there for the fact that of the hundreds of Nobel Prizes which have been
awarded in the sciences, only three have been given to people with Muslim
backgrounds, despite the fact that almost two billion of the people in the
world adhere to that religion?
Of course the hoards of Arab warriors emerging in the
seventh century, riding their camels out of Arabia, were no better than
soldiers everywhere. But as Rodney Stark shows, much of what is attributed
to the high Islamic culture of the middle ages was due to people who refused
to change to the new religion. And while they were tolerated, they were
treated very unfairly with repressive taxes and all sorts of restrictions.
And the Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem were often attacked, robbed,
The brutal, bloody sack of Jerusalem by the crusaders is
often compared with the peaceful conquest of Saladin. But this comparison
fails to remember the rules of warfare in those days. If a city under siege
surrendered, it would be spared. Otherwise everything would be destroyed;
the men killed, the women and children sold into slavery. Both the crusaders
and Saladin followed these rules. Various cities were subjected to Saladin's
wrath, as bloody and savage as anything the Crusaders offered.
Then there is the sack of Constantinople in the fourth
crusade. Yet this becomes understandable when we read of the continuous
double-crossing of the crusaders and their colony by the Byzantines, often
allying themselves with the Turks against the crusaders.
And finally we have the fact that these days many Muslims
consider the Crusades to be an historical evil, a crime which for a
millennium has been left to fester and eat away at the soul of Islam. The
Zionists of Israel and the invaders of the United States are said to be
crusaders. The bringers of evil. But in fact this idea of the crusaders as
being of great significance was an invention of 19th century Islamic
nationalism. The commentators back then, a thousand years ago, considered
the Crusades to be a minor affair. If anything, they were a welcome force to
counteract the continuing invasions of the Turks.
A painful back condition struck me down for a couple of
weeks, and the realization that things will gradually go downhill as age
progresses through the seventies and into the eighties. And thus I was in
the mood to re-read some of the books I've read over the last few years. A
good exercise. Not always reading in order to find out what happens, but to
know what happens and to think more about what is happening. This time I was
especially moved by Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. I think it
is his best.
And so this year I suppose I will do more re-readings and
less new readings, not bothering to write about them here.
Ghost Bride was Choo's first book, but I read The
Night Tiger first. Both take place in Malaya, which has now been named
Malaysia after it stopped being a British colony. Ghost Bride is set in the
1890s and Night Tiger in the 1930s. And the author was born in Malaysia of
Chinese descent, as are most of the characters in both stories.
Ghost Bride is certainly a very unusual story. I've never
been to China, and I know very little about Chinese culture. But as I
understand it, the tradition is to make paper models of various things and
then burn them at the graves of the ancestors, perhaps even paper money as
well, with the thought that this might help the spirits of the ancestors in
the unknown Beyond.
I had thought that these Asian people generally adhere to
the reincarnation theory of death. But the author shows that the after-world
is, in fact, just a place where the soul temporarily abides before it is
subjected to the judges at the Gates of Hell. There, punishment is
determined for the sins of the past life, and after this punishment is
extracted the soul then returns to our world in its new reincarnation.
Therefore the purpose of these Chinese graveyard sacrifices is to provide
those souls which are waiting as long as possible before their passage
through the Gates of Hell with everything it takes to make life in this
pre-purgatory as pleasant as possible. How dreadful it is to be stranded in
the after-world with nothing; no money, homeless, destitute. Such is the sad
fate of those whose families neglect to offer the appropriate sacrifices at
the graves of the ancestors. And on the other hand, those happy souls whose
families burn huge numbers of paper images and even large amounts of paper
money live a life of great riches in the spirit world, even approaching the
fabled luxuries of a Jeff Bezos or a Bill Gates. Such ideas of the afterlife
were exploited by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages in order to extract
huge amounts of money from the lower orders of the population. The money was
not burned, but rather it was used to support the extravagant and degenerate
life styles of the church hierarchy. And as I understand it, the same thing
happened when Buddhism descended from the heights of the Himalayan mountains
to the riches of lowland China. This is the reason that Buddhism is no
longer a popular religion in China.
And so Yangsze Choo gives us a story, telling us what
that other world is really like. The heroine in the Ghost Bride is Li Lan.
She is the daughter in a family which was earlier wealthy but which has
become impoverished in the opium fumes of the father. He has incurred
crushing debts to the powerful Lim family. The only son and heir of the Lim
dynasty, Lim Tian-ching has unfortunately died and it is proposed that Li
Lan, a still living person, should marry his ghost. She resists, and in the
night, in her dreams, she is tormented by the ghost of Lim Tian-ching,
driving her almost crazy. She drinks poison and nearly kills herself,
lingering for weeks in a half dead coma. During this time her soul wanders
about between the real world and the spirit world. It becomes a sort of
adventure story. And a love story with Er-lang, a half man, half spirit.
Very strange. But I enjoyed the book.
The Night Tiger is not such a ghost story, although there
are ghostly elements in it. It is the 1930s and we meet some of the British
colonialists. They are medical types, working in a hospital in a town in the
middle of Malaya. For most it is a banishment from the home country as a
punishment for the sins in their previous lives there.
The Night Tiger is in some way the ghost of one of these
doctors who has just died. We are familiar with the concept of werewolves. Apparently in Malaya the similar concept
of were-tigers existed. Somehow, after death, perhaps if a person was not
completely whole, for example if a finger had been amputated and thrown
away, or placed in a specimen glass with formaldehyde, then the spirit of
the dead body is not free. It becomes a were-tiger, attacking people, or at
least haunting them. It can only be pacified if the missing body parts are
returned to the rest of the body in the grave within 40 days of burial.
But there was much more to the book than just this. It
was an interesting story, giving us a feel for colonial Malaya before it
gained independence. And I enjoyed the book even more than Ghost Bride since
I'm not really such a fan of pure fantasy fiction.
11.22.63, by Stephen King
Apparently the author has written more than 50
books. This is the first one, and probably the last one which I have read.
But I do know that he is a kind of cult author with a large following of
voracious readers. Many of his books, including this one, have been made
into movies or TV series. He must be one of the richest authors in the
world, although I can't imagine that his riches would approach the multiple
billions of dollars that all those truly rich people have amassed for
themselves in our seemingly ever more corrupt modern world.
Following the American convention for writing dates, the
title of the book is the 22nd of November, 1963, the day when Kennedy was
assassinated. The book reduces the whole business to a silly nonsense. It is
a time travel adventure. The hero, Jake Epping, is a school teacher in a
small town in Maine. The time is the summer of 2011. Al, who has a diner in
town where Jake often eats hamburgers, sells them very cheaply. It turns out
that there is a secret passage in the back cupboard leading to the same town
in Maine in September 1958. You can walk down the steps and it is always the
same initial scene regardless of what you may have done on your last visit.
But when you walk up the stairs back into 2011, only 2 minutes have passed
in Al's diner. And during all the years that Al has had his diner, he has
been walking down to 1958, buying meat at the pre-inflation prices of those
days and bringing it back up the stairs to be sold cheaply, but at a good
profit in 2011.
But then, rather than just going down the steps for a
quick shopping of meat, Al, who is, as is the case with Jake, an adherent of
the political theory that democrats are good and republicans are bad,
decided to stay in the world of 1958, waiting for it to become 1963, and
then to save Kennedy from his assassination, and thus changing the world
from being bad to being good. So for Al, five years of time have passed, but
in the world of 2011, when he re-emerges from the past, only 2 minutes have
passed. The next day when Jake goes to the diner for a cheap hamburger after
school he is astonished to see that for some strange reason, Al had aged
totally from one day to the next, and he was practically dead. So Al told
him about his passageway to the past and his plan to kill that evil Lee
Harvey Oswald, the presumed killer of JFK. Obviously Al has not succeeded in
his mission since, as we know, Kennedy was actually killed on that day. Thus
he tells Jake that he must take his place and carry the plan through to
success, changing history so that today, Wikipedia would not have this page in its archives.
After a few fits and starts, Jake does stay in the world
of 1958-63. He falls in love with a beautiful woman and they succeed in
stumbling onto the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, thus
saving Kennedy, but getting the girlfriend shot and killed. Jake decides to
return up the steps into the Maine of 2011, two minutes later, but five
years older. He finds that the world has been changed in terrible ways.
Everything has gone wrong. It seems that even time and space are in the
process of descending into chaos. Existence itself is collapsing!
He learns from a strange man near the bottom of the steps
that the only solution is to go down the steps and then return, thus
"resetting" the world to its true state. He goes down, but wants to stay in
order to meet his girlfriend again and look for a better outcome - after
all, love solves everything - but in the end he decides to return up the
steps and save the world, the universe, space and time, existence, and
everything else. In the final scene he travels to Texas and meets his
girlfriend who is now 80 years old and knows nothing about all this
nonsense, but he finds her to be still attractive.
Well, Ok. I'm not averse to an amusing little time travel
story every now and then. As mentioned here a number of times, we can even
say that the idea is simply a description of the many-worlds theory of
quantum mechanics. Each possible "reset" takes us back to 1958, and from
there we branch off into a new world which no longer has anything to do with
our actual world. The time-traveler has suddenly materialized out of nothing
in 1958 with no parents, no birth, no history. But why not?
I see that Stephen King was also born in the year 1947,
just a couple of months after I was born. So maybe he thought it would be
nice to revisit the memories of his early teenage years in this story. The
hero, in his 1958 existence, soon buys a 1956 Ford Sunliner convertible and
enjoys cruising about the place. He compares it to his small Japanese car in
2011, which he hates. And I remember admiring those cars which had a large
chrome spare wheel container mounted on an extended rear bumper. I thought
that looked really cool and I wanted a car just like that when I grew up.
Now I am 72 years old. If I had such a monstrosity of a car I would
immediately sell it.
But the book is not really concerned with pleasant
feelings of nostalgia for the elderly. It is very long. I think the print
editions run to 700 pages or so. Very long-winded, tedious prose, taking
forever to get to the point. It is all about the theory that Lee Harvey
Oswald, a nasty, violent, crazed nut acted all alone. I had thought that
of the people who bother to think about the JFK assassination, those who
still believe in such an unbelievable theory are those who simply refuse
to read about the known facts. They would prefer to float about in their
happy fantasy-land where the USA remains a peaceful example to the rest of
the world of an enlightened "great" society. But at the end of the book,
Stephen King, who surely does take the trouble to read various things,
gives us a description of what he says are examples of writings which
prove this "lone nut" theory. What can he be thinking?
What do people do who go to university and study
English Literature? Do they all become school teachers? Maybe they go to
work in banks or into hedge funds, overwhelming unsuspecting customers with
elegant words. Of course if they have gotten their degree at Oxford or
Cambridge then they are a step above the rest, and if it is World War 2,
they are recruited into MI5. Then after the war, the obvious step is into
the BBC, with lots of obscure contacts, making for interesting listening.
It seems to me to be the case that people who have
become very rich tend to adopt very conservative beliefs. Perhaps they
feel that if the world will just remain the way it is, with only few
changes, then their riches might be preserved. Upsetting ideas, such as
that the USA experienced a kind of coup d'état with the assassination of
JFK, leading to ever more bloated spending on ever more wars, are thought
of as being vaguely threatening to their accumulated wealth.
And so he depicts Oswald as a monster. And also that
mysterious figure, George de Mohrenschildt, is described as a monster.
Motivated by these thoughts and looking about the internet, I found a
manuscript which de Mohrenschildt wrote shortly before he either committed
suicide or was murdered. The title is "I am a Patsy!". An interesting document, much more
interesting than the present book. It seems to be sincerely written. Is it
fact or fiction? Who knows what's the truth? Was de Mohrenschildt linked
to the CIA as most investigators seem to believe? What role did he have to
play with respect to Ruth Paine, and with getting the job at the Texas
School Book Depository? And did Oswald really take a potshot at General
Walker? The whole thing remains an unresolved murder mystery. The secret
files of the CIA were supposed to be released a year or two ago, but
President Trump, despite all his bluster and assurances that he would
follow the law, caved in, leaving us still in the dark.
Was the world of 1958-63 better than that of today?
Perhaps not. But somehow I have the feeling that not all that much has
changed in the last 50 or 60 years.
Such was the life of Juliet Armstrong. But she was not a
secret agent, parachuted into foreign lands to pretend that she was what she
was not. Instead her job was to sit in an apartment in London, fitted out
with earphones and recording equipment, listening to the goings on in the
apartment next door which had been thoroughly bugged by the technical people
of MI5, and then typing out what she was able to hear. What was she hearing?
Another MI5 agent had ingratiated himself into a small
circle of people who were sympathetic with the enemy, Nazi Germany. They
were mainly housewives. They believed that their friend, the MI5 secret
agent, was a Gestapo agent who was reporting everything over to Berlin, not
knowing that it all went into the room next door where Juliet was typing
everything out. The little group of pretend Nazis was very dilettantish. The
housewives report seeing ships out at sea, or soldiers walking on the
sidewalks. And they discuss how wonderful it will be when Hitler finally
In order to liven things up, Juliet is asked to play a
more active role, becoming a young member of the group. The goal is to find
a secret book, the Red Book, which is thought to be hidden in the house of
one of the women, containing some sort of secret information. She visits the
ringleader, finds the book but is almost found out, climbing out the
upstairs window and down the ivy clinging to the house. While doing so she
compromises the English maid of the house, and soon the maid disappears,
having been murdered and buried in some hole.
Then one day one of these housewives stumbles upon the
TRUTH about the fact that their apartment rendezvous has been bugged, with,
again, very messy results.
The book jumps into the year 1950. Juliet now works for
the BBC, producing Children's Hour. But she receives mysterious, threatening
messages. Is somebody out to get her? Is it revenge? Or is it MI5? Has
Juliet suddenly become transported into a novel by John le Carré?
The narrator has a nice name: Tara Richards. Tara
is a figure in the myths of Buddhism. And Tara Air flies from Kathmandu to
the airstrip at Lukla in the foothills of Mt. Everest. But all that is
neither here nor there as far as this book is concerned.
We first encounter Tara and her mother, Violet, in very
difficult circumstances. They are living in a slum somewhere in London; Tara
is a young girl, 14 or 15; Violet is herself well under 30 and she earns
money singing, or more?, in sleazy London clubs. In the middle of the night
they are kicked out of their room and onto the street by the slum landlord.
They wander through the night. But then they are taken in by an old man who
has a rundown hardware shop and given a room upstairs.
Violet finds a new boyfriend. He seems to be rich. A nice
house. Will he marry Violet and lead Tara into a new life of plenty? He
drives off with Violet to "The Continent" for a holiday, leaving Tara at the
hardware store. But they don't come back. And so Tara lives with her
grandmother, Violet's mother, in a small English coastal town, finishing
school, hoping that her mother will eventually return. She wonders who was
her father? But the grandmother only gives her vague, meaningless words.
Thirty years pass. Suddenly Tara receives a letter from a
lawyer. There is a package from some place in Spain, leading to her mother
and a resolution of the mystery, accompanied by her old boyfriend from
school and revelations about her father. A nice, if somewhat contrived love
The book is a kind of autobiography of the author
in which she tells us the occasional thing about herself while telling us
all about what she has observed of the world. She was born in the 1930s, in
Washington D.C. By the 1950s she was a reporter, writing from a "liberal" or
"left" point of view, and throughout everything she was always on the side
of those who are against war. Since almost all newspapers, television, radio
and all the other mass media, particularly these days, are for war, she was
reduced to being the somewhat unloved European correspondent for an obscure
socialist newspaper in the United States. She was also the Press Secretary
for the Green Party in the European Parliament before it was taken over by Joschka
Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, thus amalgamating it with the War
Given what the "left" has become, I certainly don't think
of myself as being left-leaning. The only time I have ever voted in my life,
I voted for Gough Whitlam in 1972, and indeed he went on to become Prime
Minister of Australia. I admit that there was a degree of self-interest
involved since I had been drafted in Australia and I certainly didn't want
to be sent to Vietnam. Thankfully Whitlam, the leader of the Labour Party,
did extract Australia from that senseless mess and thus I was spared from
any unpleasant military experiences.
Chapter by chapter we are led through all the various
episodes of the news for the past 50 years, and the author tells us how she
experienced these things. She has written a separate book on the war in the former Yugoslavia. In
those days, almost 30 years ago, I saw no reason to doubt the narrative we
were being constantly told on the television news and everywhere else.
Namely that Serbia was the aggressor, a reincarnation of Nazi Germany, full
of concentration camps where the poor Catholic Croats and Muslim Albanians
were being tormented. (A strange idea, given that the Serbs were the victims
of Nazi aggression in World War 2.) Thus NATO bombed them to
smithereens. Was that a reasonable action? How should I have known anything
different? I have never been to the lands of the former Yugoslavia. But
Diana Johnstone was one of only very few people who went to Serbia and
reported on the facts to her obscure newspaper in America. We learn about a
very different story.
What has happened to the "liberal" press? Of course the
television networks have been bought up and conglomerated so that they speak
with just one voice, that of the moneyed interests. As I've remarked already
here, changes to the Guardian newspaper seem characteristic of what has been
happening. For years I subscribed to the Guardian Weekly which was sent to
us on thin, airmail paper. Then for a year or two, after getting a laptop
computer, I subscribed to the normal Guardian via the internet, reading the
daily edition. But now I only occasionally click into the Guardian website.
And what's there? Climate Change, fashion advice, articles about sex,
feminism, and collections of photos. And also articles telling us why it
would be a good thing to go to war with still more countries.
I am writing this in the middle of the Great Panic of
2020. I wonder how it will be thought of in the future? It is now Easter
Sunday, a time when the usual winter flu mortality normally declines to a
lower value during the summer months. Looking at the figures on the website for the total mortality in the different
countries of Europe, the present situation seems comparable with the flu
seasons of 2016-17 and 17-18. But I am expecting to see a spike in the
data later on, representing the additional casualties in this bizarre War on
Death: suicides, domestic violence, financial collapse, and all the other
consequences of the global Lock Down. As with the "normal" influenza, most
of the deaths occur in the very old who will soon die anyway. It is not the
Are we living in an extraordinarily hysterical time?
Perhaps not. Think of all the cases of mass hysteria, even worse than that
of the present, which history presents us with.
N.B. I have found an interesting website called "off-guardian.org". They say that the founders of the
website are all distinguished by the fact that they have been censored on
and/or banned from the Guardian's "Comment is Free" sections. And indeed, in
contrast to the articles in The Guardian, the articles there seem to be well
The Woman in White and The Moonstone
These two books were both published in installments in Charles
Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. In fact, Wilkie Collins and
Charles Dickens were very good friends. I read The Moonstone first
and then The Woman in White afterwards, although they were published
in the other order. Woman in White in 1859 and then almost 10 years later,
in 1868, The Moonstone. The two novels are very similar to one another. I
had the feeling that the author, after a few years, decided to tell the
story again, but in a better way. The complicated plots can be found in the
respective Wikipedia articles so I won't try to summarize everything in a
long-winded fashion here.
In both books the story is told by the technique of the
various characters telling us what is happening from their points of view,
or from the entries in their diaries, successively carrying on the story,
from one to the other. In both stories the heroine is at first prevented
from exercising her love for the hero, but as the extremely complicated
mysteries are finally cleared up, true love prevails. In The Woman in White,
the heroine, Laura, is a weak, spineless, rather pathetic character, in
contrast with her half-sister Marion, and we are disappointed by the fact
that the hero, Walter, in the end, marries Laura rather than the far better
Marion. But thankfully the heroine of the Moonstone, Rachel, is a strong,
upstanding character, and we finish the story with the satisfaction that the
hero, Franklin, who had falsely been placed in a wrong light is redeemed and
they marry happily.
I enjoyed reading both books. Much better than Dickens.
One thing which struck me was the role the post
played back then in the 1860s. These days we have email and instant
messaging: WhatsApp, and whatever else there is. I have none of those
later applications on my smartphone, but apparently, as I understand it,
schoolchildren, even while sitting together, prefer to WhatsApp with one
another rather than simply speaking. Perhaps more formal communications
these days use email. You have a look at what's in your Inbox, and maybe
tomorrow or the next day you might do something about it. Everybody knows
that whatever you send off in the email is immediately analyzed by the
vast computers of the NSA, MI5, and all those other spying agencies who
have gone to the absurd trouble of secretly digging up undersea optical
cables to tap into things, using their submarines and so forth, pretending
that we do not know about it. Back in the 1860s the system was that there
was a "mailbag" in the house which your footman quickly took to the post.
There was great privacy. It was a very serious crime to open other
people's mail. And often even within a day you got a letter of reply from
your lawyer, or your lover or whoever you had written to. Very efficient.
Almost as quick and reliable, but much more secure, than today's email.
The characters travel on the trains in and out of London on the spur of
the moment, quickly getting to their destinations in the country. What a
contrast with public transport and the massive traffic jams blocking the
streets of today's London.
At the beginning we have a rich family living in luxury in the
English countryside. A spacious house, vast gardens, servants. And in
contrast to the usual situation which we expect to read about, we find that
the father is extremely wonderful, loved by everybody. The wife is a model
of wifely charm. There are two daughters, Nora aged 26 and Magdalen aged 18.
Nora is a picture of straight-laced sobriety while Magdalen is full of
spirits. But soon tragedy strikes. The father and the mother die within days
of each other, the father in a train crash, the mother in the process of
childbirth at a much too late age. And so Nora and Magdalen are orphans.
At first one would think: no problems! All the riches
will be transferred to the two daughters through legally binding testaments.
But there is an obscure difficulty. The father, in his wild youth, as a
soldier in Canada, married a woman who then disappeared down the river to
New Orleans. In subsequent correspondence she refused to become divorced.
Thus Nora and Magdalen's parents were not married. They were living in sin!
(back then in 1860 or so). But that's Ok. Our author, Wilkie Collins,
studied law before deciding to become a writer, and so he amuses us with all
the ins and outs of the law in a wonderful style which reminds us of the
novels of Henry Fielding. Thus, despite the fact that the parents were
secretly not married, still, the testament was valid. However, tragically, a
few weeks before their deaths, the parents received a letter from New
Orleans informing them that the earlier wife was dead. Thus they could
marry, becoming honest people. And so they took a secret journey from their
country estate to London and became married without telling anyone (who all
assumed that they were married in the first place). But, as Collins informs
us, the marriage had unexpected consequences. It was apparently the case in
those days (but hopefully not today) that the act of marriage essentially
created, under law, entirely new entities out of the freshly married people.
Thus all legal agreements which related to people before marriage became
void and required to be transferred to the new, married, legal entity in
order to again become valid.
For Nora and Magdalen this meant that they were bastards,
not even entitled to their surnames, and the family riches of the father,
who died without testament or legal offspring, reverted to the brother of
the father. Now one would think that the brother, himself a wealthy man,
seeing the injustice of the case, would restore the inheritance to the
sisters. But no! He was a horrible, rapacious man who soon dies, leaving the
whole thing to the even more horrible and degenerate son. Thus Nora is
reduced to being a penniless housemistress, charged with taking care of a
pair of spoiled young brats in the household of a family which despises her.
But Magdalen is made of sterner stuff. And so the story develops in all
sorts of complicated ways which are described in the Wikipedia article of
this book. In the end natural justice triumphs, the good relatives win and
the bad ones lose, and both Nora and Magdalen live happily ever after.
How the idea of marriage has changed since those
Again a very complicated plot. A family somewhere in the
Caribbean, wealthy slave owners. A young man visits from England; he is to
marry the daughter of the family. His friend has come along with him. But
the friend secretly falls in love with the daughter and elopes with her,
leaving on a ship. The jilted man follows in the swift yacht of the
daughter's family. In a storm they encounter the ship with the daughter and
her false husband, sinking. The man enters the ship and locks his erstwhile
friend in a cabin, leaving him to go down with the ship and drown.
The daughter, who is pregnant, is delivered in disgrace
to a family estate in England to eventually bear a son, Allen Armadale. The
murderous man takes another wife and has a son with her. For some reason
which was explained at the beginning of the book, but which I have
forgotten, he was also named Allen Armadale. Yet this second son is reviled
by his family and he is set out alone into the world as a child. He takes on
a strange name, Midwinter. The story takes place years later when the two
sons have grown up, not knowing of each other. They meet by chance and
become best friends. And there is a woman, Lydia Gwilt, who was the maid of
the daughter of the plantation. Owing to an obscure series of deaths, the
original Allan Armadale inherits the English country estate with all of its
riches. He moves in with Midwinter. He is an honest, simple-minded person,
unwilling to take part in the tedious rituals expected of him.
The main story centers on Lydia. She is 35, Allan only 21
or so. Yet her plan is to become mistress of Allan's fortune by marrying
him. She appears in the district, turning all heads with her overwhelming
beauty. All men are gasping for breath. Allan proposes to her. Midwinter
secretly loves her and eventually marries her under false pretenses. A
drooling old man, Mr. Bashwood, worships her. Thus the story proceeds from
episode to episode, telling us of Lydia's changing schemes. But to be quite
frank I found all of this to be extremely difficult to imagine. In order to
protect her questionable identity she spends most of the time hiding behind
a veil. We imagine the elaborate, bulky costumes women in Victorian England
were expected to wear. Rather like the Mohammedan female costumes of
present-day Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. How could the men discover what
Lydia actually looked like? That she was actually almost 15 years older than
Allan Armadale. Surely this is also a problem for present-day Arab men. Is
it the reason they all seem to want to migrate to Europe where women are not
expected to hide themselves in such a way?
Well, I have now finished all four of Wilkie Collins'
great novels. This leaves somewhat of a vacuum. What am I to do? He did
write a couple of novels before The Woman in White, but according to
the Wikipedia they are not of the same quality. And then after Moonstone
he wrote further, but it is said that his later writings suffer from the
fact that he had become increasingly dependent on opium in the form of laudanum,
and also he began to think of his writings not so much as vehicles to amuse
us but rather to instruct us on such social issues as the rights of women
and of the downtrodden. Still, I will try downloading his next novel, Man
and Wife, and see what that is like.
I am downloading these things from Gutenberg.org, but
there is a problem here. It is apparently so that internet sites can
discover from which country a request has appeared by examining the IP
address. Thus if I click into Gutenberg.org, they immediately see that the
request is coming from Germany. Unfortunately Germans, as a people, often
seem to be overly argumentative, defending obscure points of principle to
the point of litigation. And so a German publishing house brought a law suit
against Gutenberg.org, asserting that they, and nobody else, held the
copyright on some ancient text. Thus to protect itself, Gutenberg.org blocks
all requests from Germany. Thankfully I have found a way around this
difficulty. By using the Tor browser my German address is masked, providing
a way to access the site.
Man and Wife
The theme of this book has to do with the strange marriage laws
of Victorian Britain and their dreadful consequences, particularly for
women. We start off with the following scene. A man and his wife, their
daughter of ten or twelve years, and the family lawyer are sitting together
in a suburban London house. The man is being horrible to his wife and
daughter, sending them away, out of the room. Then he consults with his
lawyer, confirming that he is not, in fact, legally married to the woman.
The basis for this assertion is that his wife was Catholic, he was
Protestant, but in order to marry her all those years ago, he converted to
Catholicism less than one year before the marriage. The marriage ceremony
was performed by a Catholic priest in Ireland. Yet according to the law of
Ireland, the marriage would only have been valid if the man had converted at
least one year beforehand. The priest had thus unknowingly committed a
felony. If it had been a Protestant priest then completely different obscure
rules, known only to lawyers, would apply. Although he was already wealthy,
the man was a social climber, having the ambition to enter the House of
Commons, assume ministerial positions and then become a member of the House
of Lords with an hereditary title. But his "wife" was an inappropriate
companion for such ambitions, having been an actress in earlier times. Thus
he coldly dismisses her and goes off with his new girlfriend, a snobbish,
aristocratic woman. The "wife" collapses in a faint and soon afterwards dies
A new scene. It is 15 years later. We are told that the
man has become a despised figure, smoldering on the back benches of the
House of Commons, hated by all. In contrast, the lawyer has advanced to the
House of Lords with hereditary title and has become wealthy. The daughter of
the first scene, Anne, has become the governess of a wealthy family whose
seat is in Scotland. She is loved by Blanche, the daughter of the house, but
hated by the stepmother. Blanche becomes engaged to a wonderful young man.
But there is another young man, this one of dreadful character, to which,
unfortunately, Wilkie Collins, for some reason or another, assigned the name
If we look at pictures of Wilkie Collins we see a small
man, weak, almost sickly looking, gazing at us through wire framed glasses.
And he makes it clear to us that he is not interested in sports. Thus
Geoffrey is the embodiment of the crude, ape-like culture of sport and
betting which he perceived to be dragging all that was good in England down
into the mud. We are told that Geoffrey is a champion prize fighter, beating
the heaviest of heavyweights. He is also the stroke of the Oxford eight,
powering them to victory in the Boat Race and becoming the hero of uncouth
Britain. But now, at the time of the story, Geoffrey is to represent the
North against some other uncouth man representing the South, in a running
race of 16 laps around a 440 yard cinder track. That is to say, 4 miles.
Well. Wilkie Collins certainly shows his ignorance of
such things here. Even today, the burly stroke of the Oxford eight could
hardly be expected to hold his own over 4 miles of running. What greater
contrast is there between a champion heavyweight boxer - think of Tyson Fury - and a champion middle distance runner
such as Sebastian
Coe? Indeed, Coe has become a Life Peer and sits in the House of
Lords. Would Wilkie Collins turn in his grave, given this state of affairs?
Hardly, if he knew the outstanding character of Lord Coe.
But to return to the story, Geoffrey, our oafish mound of
muscle, for some reason has told the sensitive Anne that he will marry her,
and Anne sets her hopes of the future on this promise. Could it be that she
has become impregnated by Geoffrey in some scene which was so bizarre and
scandalous as to be beyond even the possibility of Wilkie Collins hinting at
it? Or is this a case of the reader letting his imagination run away with
Thus Anne, on a dark, stormy night in Scotland, runs away
to a mountain inn, run by a straight-laced woman who refuses to let any
unmarried women into her house. The situation is saved by Blanche's fiance
who gallantly tells the people of the hotel that he is Anne's husband, thus
allowing Anne to have a bed for the night. And thus we are treated to the
next obscure twist of the marriage laws of Victorian Britain. We are told
that if a man and a woman asserted before witnesses in Scotland that they
were married, then they were legally married. But then, following
the twists of the story, it develops that Anne and Geoffrey had written a
correspondence from which it appeared that they had asserted in writing that
they had promised to marry each other. According to the laws of Scotland,
this had precedence over the the other, mere spoken, promise. Thus Anne was,
in fact, married to Geoffrey. A dreadful situation since that knucklehead
now hated Anne and wanted to kill her.
But as always, goodness and virtue triumph in the end and
Geoffrey expires in a fit of muscular convulsions.
At first it would seem to be better to change the title to "The
Deadly Secret". But in fact it wasn't really deadly. It was a written
message which a rich woman in an ancient house, or castle, in Cornwall,
dictated to her maid on her death bed. The maid knew that the message would
cause terrible disruption to the husband and the small daughter, Rosamond.
But the dying woman had made her promise to 1: not destroy the message and
2: not remove the message from the house. She died before specifying the
further requirement that 3: the message must be delivered immediately to the
husband. And she threatened the simple-minded maid with coming back as a
ghost to haunt her if she did not obey these commands. Thus the maid hid the
message in the disused, decaying north wing of the mansion, and immediately
fled the house, never to be seen again (at least by the husband). So this
was the dead secret; dead in the sense that the woman who had dictated the
message was dead.
I won't be revealing too much about the story by saying
that the secret was that Rosamond was, in fact, the child of the maid, since
this is rather obvious from the beginning. Thus Rosamond was, in Victorian
terms, a bastard with No Name, not entitled to have anything to do with the
wealth and ancestry of the family. But nobody knew this except the maid and
the ghost of the dead wife.
15 years pass. We are in a different part of England.
Rosamond marries her sweetheart, Lenny, also the heir to a huge fortune and
the possessor of an ancient family. (Whatever that means; surely we all have
equally ancient forebears.) Lenny has, unfortunately become blind. And the
the wonderfully loving, caring Rosamond helps him everywhere, describing
things so that he can see through her eyes. Once or twice, Lenny objects to
Rosamond's overly familiar dealings with the servants, telling her that she
should maintain the dignity of her station in life.
The happily married couple decide to take up residence in
the ancient family seat in Cornwall. Rosamond discovers the document. What
is she to do? After all, Lenny couldn't see what was written. And nobody
else except the maid who had run away - Rosamond's true mother - knew the
She immediately tells Lenny the secret. I had thought
that he might have made a problem out of this new situation, given the
background of his family. But no. He tells her that he still loves her, and
they must make the situation clear to everyone. After all, they were still
married despite all of those absurd rulings of Victorian justice. They find
Rosamond's mother, who has hidden herself somewhere in London. They tell the
family lawyer about the situation. He at first tells them that such a
document as that which they have shown him would have no legal value. They
could just throw it in the garbage and carry on as before. But Lenny insists
that the Truth should prevail. Thus Rosamond's family fortune and the
extensive properties in Cornwall devolve onto the horrible brother of what
Rosamond had thought was her father. The brother, her "uncle", immediately
comes to the hotel and tells them that he will take everything and leave
them nothing. Both Rosamond and Lenny tell him that they are very thankful
to be able to live happily in peaceful Truth, unburdened by Rosamond's false
fortune. The uncle, who believes that all humanity is evil and only wants
money, is astonished. Can it be that there exists an example in humanity of
a married couple that is not evil? After thinking it over, he tells them
that he gives them the fortune, and even if they refuse to have it, he will
force them to have it by specifying this in his testament.
I enjoyed the book, as I have enjoyed reading all of
these things of Wilkie Collins. But still, as the Wikipedia article says,
although this was his fourth published novel, it belongs to his early
period, before he had attained true mastery with The Woman in White.
Somehow we expect to find some evil characters in a well-rounded story. A
book with everybody being so wonderfully nice begins to verge into Kitsch.
And so, sadly, I seem to have reached the bottom of the barrel as far as
Wilkie Collins' writings are concerned and I will have to find something
else to read.
If I'd known beforehand what this book was about
then I wouldn't have bought it. But it turned out to be other than what I
thought it was and so I read to the end, finding it to be interesting and
To begin with we have Joe Haak, an analyst in a London
investment bank in its department for short trading - that is, betting on
things going downhill - apparently losing his bets, since things begin to
improve, thus costing the bank millions of pounds. In a panic he gets into
his Mercedes and travels westward, eventually arriving by chance, in the
middle of the night, at the obscure village of St Piran on the west coast of
Cornwall. He takes off all his clothes, not really thinking of suicide, but
is rescued by a whale which happens to be swimming about in the
neighborhood. Being washed up on the beach, he is rescued by the villagers.
And so the story continues with descriptions of life in the village, life in
the London bank, and general observations about all the rest of life.
But then we learn that, in fact, Joe's analysis was
correct. Everything was going downhill. And just after he got into his
Mercedes to escape, the markets fell dramatically and the bank won many,
many millions. Without knowing it, Joe had become a hero of the short trade.
So why were the markets falling? We learn that it was due to a combination
of 1) a war in the Persian Gulf and 2) the flu.
Flu? Corona? Oh no!!! I can't stand hearing the words:
Corona, Covid-19, SARS-CoV-2, or any of the other horrible, ugly things
which are used to describe the absurd panic which the world has now fallen
into. I seem to have emerged into some sort of strange fantasy world, direct
out of a B-grade science fiction movie.
John Ironmonger wrote the book a few years ago; it first
came out in 2015, so he can't be accused of contributing to this deluge of
fake news which is engulfing the world just now. And in fact he describes
what it would be like if we actually had a real epidemic, something like the
plague year of the 17th century, not the fake epidemic of the 21st century.
As far as condition 1) is concerned, imagine what it
would be like if the United States decided to blow up the Persian Gulf. This
is indeed a real possibility, given what goes on in Washington. Would the
world immediately run out of oil? Well, this seems to me to be unlikely. For
example in the middle of the present hysteria the world is facing the
opposite extreme. There is so much oil sloshing around that, for a time, the
price of raw oil became negative. Producers had to pay people to take it off
Of course Germany does seem to be heading for collapse as
far as energy is concerned. The Greens are taking over the country. The next
Chancellor could well be the fellow who is the leader of the Greens, someone
with the character of a handyman, a person many women would like to have
about the house. He would replace Angela Merkel who is referred to in the
papers, or on television, as being the "Mother of the Nation", despite the
fact that she is childless. Many years ago when she was the Minister for the
Environment, she was a staunch advocate of atomic energy, telling people
that she had a Ph.D. in physics from the failed East Germany. But now,
during her years as Chancellor, she has supervised the dismantling of the
German energy sector, following the winds of change. The Greens have decreed
that Germany must shut down all coal-fired power plants and all atomic
energy plants. Diesel motors will effectively be banned and petrol motors
barely tolerated. Given the impractical, intermittent nature of windmills
and solar cells and the extremes of environmental pollution involved in
producing and operating them, I suppose the idea is that the energy supply
of Germany in the future is to come from two pipelines on the ground of the
Baltic Sea which supply natural gas from Russia, shipments of liquefied
natural gas from the US, and the burning of huge amounts of trees from the
native forests of North America, the Amazon, Indonesia, and wherever else it
comes from which is not particularly visible to the voters of the Green
Party, in the name of "bio-fuel". As described in the book, the consequences
of no electricity are more profound than we at first think. For example
water must be pumped through the pipes using motors. Thus if the electricity
fails, soon we have no water. And then there are all sorts of further
But perhaps, given a true panic, Germany might be saved
by Poland, Hungary, and those other Eastern European countries which have
had the sense to maintain a robust power network, and which might divert
some of it into the German grid.
Then the second factor attributed in the book as a cause
of a worldwide collapse is the flu. Influenza. We think of the epidemic of
1918 which is said to have accounted for 60 million deaths or more. In
contrast with the normal flu, it is said that most of the dead were young
people in their 20s or 30s. Of course the corona of 2020 is said to mainly
kill the geriatric. The world of 1918 was more concerned with the Great War
(which was undoubtedly, as with all wars, also a source of fake news in
those days). Thus the flu was not particularly mentioned in the newspapers,
and it was only afterwards that people thought about the fact that many
people seemed to have died of the flu. There was no question of locking
healthy people up, or forcing them to participate in a masquerade of masks.
After all, the Great War was responsible for such horrors.
I have often read of different theories about the origin
of the flu epidemic in those days and why it was so virulent. It is thought
to have originated at Ft. Riley in Kansas. One idea about the strange
virulence is that perhaps doctors in those days gave patients massive doses of aspirin, leading to hemorrhaging. Who
What a contrast all of that is with the situation today.
Certainly there does seem to be a virus about, as there is every year. And
as with the influenza virus it can be very unpleasant. But is this one any
different from the ones we have each flu season? If there are 80 million
people in Germany, and if the average person lives to be 80 years old and
then dies, then, forgetting all other factors, we would expect one million
people to die each year in Germany. The "news" tells us that so many
thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or whatever, have Corona. Leaving aside
the question of how these cases are actually diagnosed, we might ask: are
all these people dying, such that they would not be dying if they did not
have it? If so, then there would be a certain excess mortality which
would turn up in the general statistics. We can easily check this by looking
at the web page of
the institute which monitors the weekly mortality in various European
countries and regions. There we see that for the regions of Germany which
are covered, there has been no excess mortality. The same is true for
Austria, Denmark, Finland, and many other countries. On the other hand, in
many others there has been an excess mortality, often even greater than that
of the flu season of 2016-17, which itself was somewhat more than average.
And then our local paper printed a short notice, telling
its readers that there has been a large excess mortality in Belgium. This is
true, but the implied suggestion was that it is typical for all countries in
the great pandemic which it has been describing in all the rest of its
reporting. Looking at the true story we see that this is, in fact, a prime
example of the distortion of news. Or, to use the currently popular phrase,
One good consequence of this whole business is that
whereas before, part of our routine each day was to watch the evening news
on television, now we have entirely stopped doing this. We have found that
there are documentaries being shown on other channels, filled with
interesting, informative information which is not fake. It is a much better
way to spend that hour or so at the beginning of the evening. I haven't yet
cancelled our subscription to the local newspaper. It usually consists of
two separate folded parts. The first of which is the "news" consisting
mainly of what various politicians say about one another, and unverifiable
general statements which may or may not be fake; but also the sport is in it
which, while being mostly boring, is certainly factual. But the second part
has stories of local happenings which are obviously factual. So I suppose we
will continue to subscribe.
Why is it that there has been an excess mortality in
Italy, Spain, and especially England, above the usual seasonal flu level?
Also we hear of a large excess mortality in New York City. Might it be a
consequence of the lockup, where healthy people were forced to stay indoors
for weeks at a time as in a prison, depriving them of the sunshine and the
vitamin D which usually ends the flu season? This would be particularly true
of darker skinned people. Or more to the point, is it simply so that in some
places where the death rates are particularly high, people are
inappropriately being subjected to "ventilators", which are killing them.
And then we read of many people who have real, serious medical conditions,
not the fashionable Corona, particularly in London and New York, being
refused treatment, thus contributing to the excess mortality.
In any case, when we are talking about probable causes of
the collapse of civilization, it seems to me that people are ignoring the
real threat. Obviously the greatest danger, with the highest probability of
occurrence, particularly given the madness in Washington, is that a large
fraction of the inhabitants of the earth will die in a massive holocaust of
At the end of the book the message, or moral of the
story, is that people are much nicer than we normally think. Given
adversity, people come together and help one another. Or at least people in
the nice little Cornish village of St Piran do this.
Yes, we spent weeks together in Plymouth a few years ago,
often going for walks in Cornwall. The people in Plymouth were really nice.
There was always a feeling of openness and friendliness there. Wonderful
people. But how can we reconcile this with the actions of the State of
England? Its treatment of Julian Assange. The dark history of its colonial
past. The violent elimination of villages similar to St Piran which,
however, had the misfortune to be located not in England, but rather
somewhere in Africa or Asia, or even Ireland.
Some time ago I read Dazai's The Setting Sun, and found it to be depressing,
showing life in decline for the former aristocracy of post-war Japan. I
wrongly thought that the alcoholic brother, Naoji, of that book was a
description of Dazai himself. The story was that the daughter of the family,
Kazuko, is doing everything to support her sick mother, but then Naoji
appears, having survived the War in the Pacific. He takes everything he can
get from the mother and his sister, running off to Tokyo to his friends
where the money disappears in alcohol, drugs, prostitutes. And when it is
gone he comes back for more. In the end he thankfully dies. Naoji determines
to have a baby with Naoji's friend in Tokyo, the degenerate author, Uehara.
Reading Dazai's entry in the Wikipedia, we see that all of this is based on
the true story of Shizuko Ōta, who bore Dazai's daughter Haruko. Thus Dazai
saw himself in the sleazy, unpleasant character of Uehara. After reading the
present book, I reread The Setting Sun to remember all the details.
No Longer Human is even more autobiographical.
Dazai, in the character of Ōba Yōzō, tells us of his early life. His family,
from a district in the north of Japan, is wealthy and powerful, though not
aristocratic. He is shy and he finds it difficult to be around people. He
does well at school, but hides from others. Eventually he finds a friend who
introduces him to alcohol, drugs and prostitutes. He tells us that he feels
comfortable sleeping beside prostitutes since he feels that they are hardly
human. There are suicide attempts, often accompanied by one girlfriend after
another. In one episode, he and the current girlfriend try to drown
themselves in the ocean. The girlfriend drowns but Ōba Yōzō, that is to say
Dazai, is - unfortunately - saved by a passing fishing boat. His family
disowns him, but they organize a friend of the family to deal with him.
Occasionally his brother also appears and gives him some cash. He is an
alcoholic and a morphine addict. An episode in an insane asylum. And yet
there always seem to be young women attaching themselves to him. He even has
a wife and three children with her.
In the Wikipedia article it is said that this was Dazai's
masterpiece, and it is the second best-selling novel in Japan, behind
Natsume Sōseki's Kokoro.
So there you are.
Since Dazai is considered to be such a great writer
in Japan, I thought I would try something which wasn't just dwelling on the
details of his depressing life. This is a collection of short stories.
Perhaps you could say that they are in the style of Hans Christian Anderson,
but based on Far Eastern culture rather than European culture. Children's
stories, or fairy stories (although that may be an inappropriate word these
days as language changes). Many are retelling traditional Chinese stories.
But quite frankly I found them to be boring (as indeed
are the stories of Hans Christian Anderson) and some of them hardly seemed
to make any sense, stopping in the middle, leaving the reader up in the air.
I gave up before finishing the book. The fact that Dazai is so well thought
of in Japan is a mystery to me. Perhaps he had a very elegant style of
writing which is simply lost in these translations.
by Keigo Higashino
A murder mystery set in Tokyo. Higashino seems to
be a prolific writer who is very popular in Japan. The book is about the
murder of a woman in her mid 30s, living alone in a suburb of the city. We
gradually learn about the circumstances of her life and the fact that nobody
seems to have a motive for killing her. The investigation is led by a member
of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police who does everything in a routine way,
finding nothing. But the real investigation is by Detective Kyochiro Kaga,
who has been newly assigned to the local police department. We are told that
he is a master of Kendo, but despite this fact, he is always extremely mild
mannered and polite. From one chapter to the next he follows one obscure
lead after the other, each seeming to have little to do with the case, and
the various characters he meets are also all polite, puzzled, and helpful.
In the end, we discover that the murderer is a polite,
mild mannered man who has been too polite and mild mannered in the process
of bringing up his son. The son is a spendthrift, throwing away money on an
extravagant lifestyle, always expecting to be bailed out by his
father. Thus, given the circumstances and the fact that he has
committed embezzlement, the poor murderer was led to his unfortunate deed.
Detective Kaga admonishes him for not adhering to the proper ways of
education, as for example learned in the hard discipline of Kendo, and the
murderer disappears into the Japanese prison system.
As we know, Japan continues to use capital punishment by hanging. A very sobering
experience, different from all the other polite experiences described in the
The author was the daughter of Osamu Dazai, whose
real name was Shūji Tsushima. She was not the one described in The
Setting Sun. Rather she was the youngest child of Dazai's actual
(second) wife, Michiko Ishihara. Although we read much about Dazai's other
girlfriends, Michiko Ishihara seems to be hardly mentioned and instead the
present author is always described as the child of Dazai, her mother being
thought unworthy of being further mentioned.
The book contains two stories, the first is The
Watery Realm, while the second provides the title of the book. It is
said that The Watery Realm is very much autobiographical. A young
mother and her small son who sees a plastic castle in an aquarium shop for
bubbling the water, and he wants to have it. But it is too expensive. There
is lots of water in the story. Tsushina's father's many suicide attempts
involved drowning, and the final, successful suicide with the last
girlfriend, in a dirty Tokyo canal, took place when the author was just one
year old. In the story her mother is cruel to her, painfully beating her
with bamboo canes. And so she is always running away from this savage
childhood. Yet the mother is mild and loving to the two older children, the
middle one of which is mentally handicapped.
Yuko Tsushina was, for me, a far better writer than her
father. The stories have a depth and emotion beyond anything which I could
see in the few things I've read of Dazai. And she was honored in Japan with
many literary awards.
How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland
Since the Order of the World has suddenly changed
into a bizarre new War on Death, I decided to read this book in order to
know more about The Enemy. The character of the War is perhaps best
explained in this YouTube video by a nurse who was working at Elmhurst
Hospital, in Queens, New York, which has been described as the epicenter of
the epicenter of the Covid-19 "pandemic". I don't expect the link to remain
active for very long. In a time when Truth is Denial, and Openness is
Conspiracy, some poor little Winston Smith, working at Google, installing
the Corona App into his smartphone so that his benign, loving, and
all-knowing Big Brother will be able to protect him, will soon click on the
button to consign the video down the Memory Hole.
Up until about 1990 we had the Cold War, somehow a
contradiction in terms, since war is generally supposed to be hot. But it
did involve numerous episodes with millions of deaths in far-away places
like Vietnam and Indonesia. After 1990 we had a period where there seemed to
be no War at all. And yet, as is well known, Nature abhors a vacuum, so that
we were soon provided with the War on Terror. Or perhaps we should say the
War of Terror, since the Coalition of the Willing was going into
far-away lands in order to terrorize people with torture, arbitrary
killings, drones, and in the process creating millions of refugees and
further millions of casualties. But gradually the people of the Civilized
World (or should we say, following George Orwell, Oceania) began disrupting things. Yellow Vests were
marching in the streets of France. Hoards of deplorables elected an
inappropriate President of the United States of America. Racists and other
undesirables in England disrupted the Order of the World with Brexit. How
was the World to be returned to a New Normal Order of functioning?
Suddenly a variation of the corona viruses - which had
previously been associated with the common cold - appeared in Wuhan,
providing the inhabitants of Oceana with an opportunity for exercising The
Hate against Eastasia. And not only in Oceana, but everywhere in
the world, using a term associated with the suppression of prison inmates,
people were told to Lockdown (although a more appropriate term might be
Lockin, or Lockup). They were under house arrest, enforced by police and
drones. When allowed out of house arrest, an order of Social Distancing and
the wearing of facial Masks was enforced in order to prevent deplorables and
undesirables from gathering together and producing more disorder. And thus
the world embarks upon a New Normal in its War on Death.
Sherwin B. Nuland published this book in 1993. Therefore
it is somewhat outdated and one-sided. The author was a surgeon at the
Yale-New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. In the first chapters he
gives us a clear picture of what Death is for most people. He describes what
he has seen in the deaths of his grandmother, his brother, and various other
members of his family, and also the many deaths he has seen in his
professional life in the hospital. We are told about how the heart and the
entire circulatory system degenerates with age. The various ways the heart
fails. And the lungs deteriorate along with the heart. In even the most
healthy looking 70, 80, or 90 year-olds, the ravages of death are gradually
taking over the body. The End, for many, even most, is a process of gasping
for breath with the cells deprived of oxygen and water. Precisely the
symptoms of Covid-19, particularly when the death-bed scene is accompanied
by hysteria and panic.
The idea of suicide is briefly dealt with, describing the
profound feelings of disgust medical doctors share. Then there are a number
of long chapters about AIDS. Yes, in 1993 it was expected that half of the
population of the world would be dead of AIDS by now. We are told of the
sneaky, underhanded, myriad strategies the HIV virus has to defeat all
possible attempts of medical science to bring it under control. But we are
also told of the great hope which was invested in the drug AZT. Dr. Nuland
describes a typical death by AIDS. The wasting away, the loss of bodily
functions, the filth and smell. The puzzling fact that most cases involved
homosexual men and intravenous drug users is mentioned, but is dismissed as
being irrelevant. After all, AIDS was raging far away through the savage
Heart of Darkness in Africa, and it was expected that within a short time
the population of that unfortunate, lost continent would be decimated, or
even halved. Subsequently it was asserted that half the world would die of
Mad Cow Disease, or of the Swine Flu.
He then describes the aftermaths of violent accidents or
even deliberate acts of violence. Often the victim feels a sense of calm
detachment in the midst of the most horrible scenes of bodily violence and
dismemberment. Why is this? And yet after heroic scenes of hospital surgery,
the victim will often awaken into a world of excruciating pain.
Then comes cancer, and this leads into the main message
of the book which the author describes in many ways, quoting poets,
philosophers, the Ancients. The fact that we would like to die in dignity.
Yet in the hospital there is generally no dignity. He tells us about a case
he had as an enthusiastic young surgeon. A 92 year old woman in a nursing
home with no family at all in the world collapsed and lost consciousness.
She was rushed to hospital where she was revived, and it was discovered that
she had extensive cancer throughout her abdomen. She told the author that
she did not want to be revived again. There was no reason to hang on
senselessly to the end of life. But the young Dr. Nuland could not accept
this. He argued, pleaded, threatened her, wanting to perform surgery to
"save" her life. After putting the poor woman under so much pressure he said
that he would go away for 15 minutes so she could think about it, and he
would come back to hear her answer. So she caved in and agreed to the
procedure. We are told that upon opening her abdomen the doctor was shocked
at the extent of the cancer, hardly being able to repair anything at all.
When the old woman woke to much pain her eyes were filled with hatred for
her tormentor, and she spent a few horrible weeks in the hospital before
finally expiring, robbed of all dignity.
After this we are told that now, when the author is more
experienced and has a better appreciation of the dignity of his patients, he
would respect the wishes of such an old woman. But then, immediately, he
tells us of the difficulty of such a plan. The woman would die peacefully,
but the other doctors in the hospital would accuse him of failing to save
her life. Simply letting her die amounts to murder. The statistics of the
hospital would suffer. And the hospital would suffer financial consequences.
This could amount to the end of his career as a surgeon. And then in a final
chapter with the title "Coda:2010", written for a later edition of the book,
we are told about how much worse the situation has become in the 17 years
since it was first published in 1993. A dramatic increase in bureaucracy;
only the financial side counts; he observes with dismay that colleagues
proudly display not only their M.D. degrees, but also their M.B.A.s.
What is the lesson I draw from all this? If you are
healthy but have some clearly recognizable problem: for example mechanical
problems with the back or the eyes, or getting bitten by a tick and
wondering if you might be infected with Lime disease, and so on, then
surgery or antibiotics would clearly be sensible. But getting toward the end
of life when things are out of control, leading to unnecessary suffering,
then do everything to avoid hospitals. Perhaps hospices might be the answer.
And make it absolutely clear that you do not want to be revived if you fall
into a coma. Otherwise, lots of painkillers.
Since Sherwin Nuland tells us so much about his family, I
thought it would be interesting to see what further things I could find
online. There is a TED talk in which he is the speaker. We learn that his
family circumstances led him into a phase of deep depression when he was
young. Delivered into a hospital in those days, he was due to have a
lobotomy performed on his brain, swishing a needle about in his frontal
cortex, reducing him to a half vegetable. But thankfully, at the last
moment, it was decided only to give him a sequence of electrical shocks
through the brain, from which he was able to recover. Another detail of his
life is that Victoria
Nuland is his daughter; an unfortunate woman who appears to be an
important figure in the vested interests of the "Deep State", forcing us
into the War on Terror and now the War on Death.
A couple of years ago I read The Garden of the Evening Mists, also by Tan
Twan Eng. The stories are similar to one another. The Japanese occupation of
Malaya in the Second World War, told in the present, in the old age of the
narrator, describing a deep friendship in those troubled times with a
Japanese living in the country. The narrator of the present story is Phillip
Hutton, whose father owns one of the largest trading companies in the
country. The family has been living in Malaya for generations, ever since
the beginnings of the English presence in the 18th century. Yet Phillip is
half Chinese. After the death of his first wife, Phillip's father married
the daughter of an important man in the Chinese community of Malaya. And so
Phillip feels as if he is neither a part of the very English Hutton family
nor of the Chinese family of his mother who died when he was a small child.
The story takes place in Penang, an island off the west coast of Malaya at
the northern end of the Strait of Malacca, and the first half of the book
describes all of this, giving us a picture of what life must have been like
in such a setting in 1939 or 40. The English are the comfortable ruling
class. Then there are the Chinese with their tightly bound secret societies.
We learn less about the Indians and the Malays.
Phillip is just 17 or 18 years old. He gets to know
Hayato Endo, who is always referred to as Endo-san, a middle aged Japanese
living on a small island just off the coast of Penang, owned by the Hutton
family. Endo-san becomes Phillip's sensei, or teacher. He is a
master of aikido,
the Japanese martial art which is primarily concerned with defense, not
attack. Phillip spends all his spare time with Endo-san, soon also becoming
an expert in aikido. But his father and all the English find it distasteful
that Phillip is friends with Endo-san. They have invaded Manchuria and the
north of China, and news of unspeakable cruelties is everywhere. The Chinese
despise the Japanese. Why is Phillip, a half-Chinese, associating himself
with such a person as Hayato Endo, an official with the Japanese consulate
The English felt safe in Malaya. After all, how could the
Japanese even think about invading the country with its powerful British
fleet and army base at Singapore? The war in Europe was far away. But by
1940 the Japanese had conquered large parts of eastern China and also French
Indochina (that is, Vietnam). Then suddenly there was Pearl Harbor in
December 1941, and immediately the Japanese invaded Siam (or Thailand) and
Indonesia, heading southwards towards Australia. Rather than taking on
Singapore directly, they landed on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula and
advanced across it and southwards, soon capturing Penang, quickly
overrunning the country. All of this is described in the Wikipedia article.
In the days before radar a sea battle was very much a
matter of guesswork. With better luck the Japanese could easily have won the
of the Coral Sea. Perhaps the Battle of Midway was something the Japanese could only
lose. After all, the Americans had been able to decode all the Japanese
naval messages, providing a decisive advantage. And in the end, even if
those battles had been lost, American industrial strength as it was back
then in the 1940s, combined with the world's greatest physicists producing
the atomic bomb, would eventually have overwhelmed Japan. But for two or
three years, the Japanese occupied the jungles of Southeast Asia. Europeans
were imprisoned in concentration camps, there were death marches, the horror
of the Burma
Railway. A third or more of the prisoners died from torture,
Returning to the book, the hated Japanese have arrived in
Penang. Endo-san is now the second in command. And what does Phillip do? He
immediately walks to the Japanese Consulate, which is now a military
headquarters, and offers to help the Japanese in their occupation of his
country, acting as translator.
I had to put the book down at this point. It took me a
while to get to sleep that night. After all, when reading a book like this
you begin to live in the character of the narrator, imagining being him.
What a shock that he is a traitor. A collaborator. These days when we think
of Nazi Germany and the invasion of France there is universal condemnation,
even revulsion for those French people who became collaborators, sending
people to the torture chambers of the Gestapo and on to the concentration
camps. And the situation was similar with those collaborating with the
Japanese and their torture chambers.
But I did continue on with the book. After all, what was
Phillip supposed to do? If he had done nothing then he and the rest of his
family would have been thrown into one of the concentration camps. If he and
the family had followed the example of many others and fled to Singapore
then they would have experienced the same fate. If they had made it to
India, or perhaps Australia, then they would have survived, but their
reputation in Penang, the future of the family firm which had been built up
over many generations, would be finished. And we learn that during the
terrible years of the Japanese occupation, Phillip used his connections with
the Chinese triads, giving them information which saved many people. But of
course he was also a public figure of the occupation, having to be present
at horrible scenes, reviled by the people. And so he emerged from the whole
mess in an ambiguous position. All of his family perish; the father
decapitated by Endo-san using his ancient samurai sword. And then, when the
British forces take over the island at the end of the war, Endo-san is
decapitated by Phillip, using the samurai sword which Endo-san had given him
years ago, the companion to Endo-san's sword.
We learn that Endo-san was not evil. He was forced into
this position by the fact that his family in Japan were pacifists, jailed
and at the mercy of the Emperor's fanaticism. After Phillip's betrayal
became known, he was sentenced to death by the Japanese, but his father
asked to die in his place. And then rather than the prospect of spending his
life in an English military prison, Endo-san asked Phillip to end his life
honorably, with his sword.
A beautifully written book, letting us think about a time
and circumstances which seem to be thankfully distant, but which are nearer
than we think.
A poetic book, set in 1807, a distant, troubled
time. We follow a character named John Lacroix. He arrives home in a coach,
nearly dead, to be gradually nursed back to life by the housekeeper. It is a
comfortable estate somewhere in the south of England. Lacroix is a young man
who has returned from the fighting on the "Peninsula", that is to say in
Spain. Napoleon's army had occupied the country and was at the height of its
strength; the Russian campaign, leading to defeat, was still a couple of
years in the future. But the British were already defeated on the Peninsula
1807, with a disastrous retreat and evacuation of the survivors back to
Lacroix, a cavalry officer, was ordered to stay back and
wait for stragglers, gathering a ragged group of tired, hungry, defeated
soldiers, trudging towards the coast. They come across a village. There are
only women and children and a few old men. Lacroix enters a house and
collapses in exhaustion. But outside, things get out of control. Villagers
are shot, hanged, raped. Eventually, almost in a delirium, he staggers
outside and confronts the ringleader, a soldier named Calley, and then they
march onwards. (Perhaps Andrew Miller was thinking of Lieutenant William L.
Calley Jr. here, and the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.)
Later, in Portugal, the owner of the village, a wealthy
aristocrat, feels that the destruction of his village amounted to a kind of
personal insult which must be avenged.
Of course, following the system of moral responsibility
in place in the United States of America, the consequence of the My Lai
Massacre, and indeed of the Abu Ghraib tortures in Iraq, was that only
common soldiers were charged, and the higher officers who were directly
responsible got away scot-free, even receiving promotion and military
"honors" for their crimes. (In fact, according to the Wikipedia, " Three
U.S. servicemen who had tried to halt the My Lai Massacre and rescue the
hiding civilians were shunned, and even denounced as traitors by several
But in contrast to this deplorable and corrupt modern
system, the owner of the village in 1807 required the sacrifice of an
English officer in order to restore his honor. And so Calley was
sent off to England to find Lacroix and kill him. He was accompanied by a
Spanish officer to confirm that the deed was done.
At first, Lacroix was unaware of all this. After
recovering on his estate he decides to flee to Scotland, deserting the army
and the horrors of war, perhaps returning to his earlier studies of music.
He travels incognito, hoping to avoid having to continue with his commission
and a second posting back to Spain. Eventually he arrives at an isolated
house in the dunes of an island on the Outer Hebrides. There is a brother
and two sisters, living the life of hippies of those days. And so Lacroix
more of less joins them in a little commune on the beach. And he falls in
love with one of the sisters.
But we also follow Calley and his Spanish companion,
traveling north in pursuit. Calley leaves a trail of blood in his
single-minded, horrible quest, ending in a confrontation on the Dunes.
Two stories which are only tenuously connected. The
main story is about an old woman, Alice, in England, who is dying of cancer.
She has two sons, Alec and Larry. The former has come to live with her in
her last days. He is a tentative, worrying sort, unmarried, desperately
dependent on his mother despite the fact that the mother really loves Larry.
Alec has lived in Paris for a year, and now he works as a translator. His
job is to translate a play, written in French by the Hungarian exile, Lásló
Lázár, the subject of the second story in the book.
Larry lives in the USA. He was one of the main characters
in a television soap opera which was televised nationwide, but after a
dispute with the director he was fired and written out of the soap, the
story being that he would have to return to England to look after his mother
who was dying of cancer, demonstrating how life follows art. Larry has a
troubled wife and a troubled young daughter who has expensive hours with a
therapist. In fact, Larry is running out of money, and to save himself he
has agreed to star in a pornographic movie, produced by a character named
"T. Bone", whose sidekick is "Ranch", also a performer of pornographic
scenes. This was the most interesting and amusing part of the book.
But eventually Larry, together with wife and daughter,
join Alec at the old family home in England, looking after Alice. There are
various friends and acquaintances, all of whom are completely devastated by
the condition of poor Alice, dying before their eyes. And so she dies at
home, the center of everything, distributing her attentions, affections to
one character or another. What a contrast with the usual situation in our
modern world where the dying is confined to a hospital with life being
prolonged as long as possible, bringing the hospital something in excess of
$1,000 per day, the excess being more or less extravagant depending on the
country, and being operated on as often as possible, using the most
The Lásló Lázár story takes place in Paris. We expect
Lásló to visit his translator, Alec, in England, perhaps giving us his
dramatic interpretation of the whole situation. But no. Instead we are
treated to the parties he gives for his Parisian friends, with elaborate
descriptions of food and wine, together with his young, German, homosexual
partner. It is the year 1997 and Hungary is free. We learn that in the
uprising of 1956 Lásló had been standing guard with a group of students
planting a bomb or something. He was given a sub-machine gun, but when a car
appeared with Soviet agents, or perhaps Hungarian secret police, shooting at
Lásló's best friend, he was unable to pull the trigger. And so now, to atone
for this failure, he agrees to take something to Budapest on behalf of a
group of Albanians, fighting the Serbs.
Should we equate the Serbs with Soviet Russia? or even
with Nazi Germany? After all, it was the Serbs who were the victims of the
Nazis, not the Hungarians. And the present-day Albanians who are living as
refugees in northern Europe are reputed to be involved in the most violent
and vicious types of organized crime.
These two stories, the dying of Alice and Lásló's life in
Paris, neither come together nor come to an ending. The book was
short-listed for the Booker Prize when it was first published. But this is
not necessarily a recommendation. Still, Miller writes very well so I'll see
what else he has written.
Maud and Tim are working on a boat, perhaps 10
meters long, owned by the university sailing club. It is out of the water
for the winter, propped up on supports. Maud falls off the deck onto the
hard ground, survives, and so Maud and Tim come together.
The name Maud seems to me to be an unfortunate one. How
does your parents choice of a first name influence who you are? I can't
imagine a Maud being an easygoing, popular person. She has a very visible
tattoo on her underarm: Sauve Qui Peut.
According to Google Translate, that means "run for your life". Another
possible translation might be "everyone for himself". She is studying
biochemistry, Tim something liberal-artsy. They get together and have a
baby, Zoe. Maud is now working, for a biotech company. Tim is at home
looking after Zoe, vaguely thinking about music. Strumming his guitar. They
are not married.
And they aren't really compatible with one another. In
some sense their roles have been exchanged. Whereas it is said that women
tend to do lots of talking and men are more taciturn, it is Tim who is doing
all the talking, accusing Maud of not talking enough. Tim's family are rich
landowners. They are constantly half drunk, laughing, shouting at one
another. There are dogs, horses everywhere. It takes half an hour for a
gaggle of fox hunters together with their dogs to gallop across the family
lands. The money flows from somewhere, who knows where? On the other hand,
Maud's parents are modest, quiet teachers with little money. Tim's friends
have studied literature, philosophy, perhaps law. They went to exclusive
private schools in England. They laugh loudly, drink a lot, know nothing of
But at least Tim and Maud do have sailing in common. They
buy an old Nicholson 32 sailboat. But when they try to go for a sail with
Zoe, she screams, wants to have nothing to do with water. And so on the
weekends, sometimes Maud goes alone to the boatyard and takes out the boat.
During the week she must work while Tim is at home. Doing what? He becomes
intimate with one of the women in his loud group of friends. And then one
day Tim has an accident in his car, taking Zoe to school. Tim is in
hospital, badly injured, while Zoe is dead.
Maud rushes to the hospital. Tim's new girlfriend is
holding his hand. He refuses to look at Maud. Everyone seems to be saying
that she is guilty! She was a bad mother, not caring about Zoe,
despite the fact that it was she who was doing the work, earning the money
for the family. The half-wit squire - Tim's father - had certainly not
offered to pay for their family life. And in fact when a few weeks later she
tried visiting Tim at his parents estate, the father, in his half drunken
state, shouted at her for being a bad mother - with her tattoo, hitting her
so that she falls, telling her never to come back. What horribly monstrous
people! Good riddance.
And so she decides to set off in her sailboat to cross
the Atlantic, with no particularly specific goal in mind. We are treated to
involved technical descriptions of the passage; the author, Andrew Miller,
obviously knows a lot about sailing. The Nicholson 32 does well to achieve 5
or 6 knots of speed, and so Maud travels perhaps 100 nautical miles per day.
Thus it will be 40 or 50 days to cross to the Caribbean, or Brazil. But
although it is the first half of the year, and thus not the hurricane
season, Maud is hit by a huge storm with hurricane winds and huge, breaking
waves. The boat capsizes, and even rolls completely over on a massive wave,
the mast breaking, battering the hull. It rolls upright but is a wreak, and
yet the storm continues. Eventually Maud does survive and she manages to set
a jury rig.
She makes landfall, half dead. But there is nobody. After
a day or two of staggering about and then collapsing into a profound sleep
she is awakened by a little girl, and she emerges into a dreamlike community
of children. Where will she go now? What more does life have for her after
all these adventures? A wonderful book.
The author who is English has lived in a number of
different countries, getting to know the various ways people live. In
contrast to most authors, Andrew Miller seems to enjoy telling stories which
are completely different from one another. His experience of Japan went into
this book, although it describes a time and circumstances far removed from
anything we have experienced. It is the buildup to the catastrophic war in
the Pacific in the early 1940s. Having read the book, it seems to me that it
is something no Japanese would have written, even though it does have very
much of a Japanese feel about it.
Yuji Takano is a young man, perhaps 25. He is living at
home in Tokyo, a student at the Imperial University, studying especially
French. His father was a professor, but unfortunately some years before this
time he wrote an obscure article on economics, saying that not only the
Emperor, but also the elected parliament should have some say in government.
And then, as military hysteria gradually overwhelmed Japan, the article was
discovered and Professor Takano was declared to be a traitor, a non-person,
and he was dismissed from the university. Thus Yuji shares in the fate of
the family and must learn to live without his allowance. He has literary
ambitions, having published a book of poems which has sold 20 or 30 copies,
probably only half, or even fewer of which have actually been read by
anybody. He does earn a few sen, or even yen, writing advertising copy for
industrial firms. But mainly he involves himself with a Frenchman living in
the neighborhood and his daughter, both of which had come from Vietnam some
years before to live in Tokyo.
He is exposed to the hostility of the neighbors who
consider him to be a lazy coward for not as yet joining the army and
participating in the rape of Manchuria. A childhood friend and next door
neighbor who has been there and returned wounded tells Yuji in a night of
heavy drinking about the horrors.
In the end, when life becomes impossible for the
Frenchman and his daughter who has just born Yuji's child, they leave for a
questionable future in Singapore. Can Yuji follow them to perhaps become a
hero in a novel by Tan Twan Eng?
Again a new and very different story. This time it
is 1785, just before the French Revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young
man from the north of France, of simple ancestry who has studied engineering
and who has been in charge of coal mining, is summoned to a room in the
palace of Versailles. There he is given the task of getting rid of the
ancient cemetery of Les Innocentes in Paris so that it can be converted
into a sensible city square. He employs a gang of minors from his old
diggings in order to remove all the accumulated skeletons.
All of this is based on the true history of Les
Innocentes. It was the main cemetery of Paris for at least 800 years, up
until the 18th century. It is thought that millions of corpses were buried
there. They were placed in pits, astonishingly deep. In the book, they are
25 or 30 meters deep, holding thousands of skeletons each. And then the
other buildings on the site, the church, the charnel house and so on, were
to be demolished. The skeletons were then deposited in the Catacombs of Paris.
It was a nice read with all the adventures and characters
Baratte encounters during his year on this project.
The subtitle of the book is, "The Myopia of
American Strategic Planning". The author is a Russian who was a naval
officer in Russia and, according to the review I have linked to here, he
took part in the conflicts in the Caucasus, then in the 1990s he moved to
the United States where he now works as laboratory director of a commercial
aerospace group, and blogs on the US Naval Institute Blog.
Clearly he is not a person like me who observes the
hysterical goings on of the world from the calm perspective of a quiet house
and a flourishing garden, enjoying retirement, whiling away the days in the
practice of music. Nevertheless this book, which certainly isn't fiction,
tells a very clear story.
Why is it that the United States has become carried away
in an unprecedented level of hysteria with respect to Russia? This is not
just a grumpy Hillary Clinton whining about the fact that she lost. It seems
to go way beyond that. Perhaps the hysteria stems from the circumstance that
the politicians in Washington feel compelled to attack Iran. After all, that
is the instruction from Netanyahu's Israel - and those politicians'
existences depend upon the good favor of the Israel Lobby. But on the other
hand, if the United States were to attack Iran then it would have to deal
with the wrath of Russia.
Would that be a problem? According to the "neo-cons" and
the academic "experts" in the "think tanks" of Washington D.C., none of whom
have any experience of military matters, and, as shown in this book, most of
whom have a ridiculously limited knowledge of Russia and its history, Russia
would be easily wiped away by the mighty strength of the good'ol USA. But is
this true? Martyanov examines the origins of this American myth.
According to Hollywood, the "greatest generation" of
American G.I.s won the Second World War.
Well, as a reality check, for the first two years and
more of that war, the United States was neutral, making money by selling
arms to the adversaries. After Pearl Harbor it did engage in a naval war
with Japan, involving some landings on the beaches of the Pacific. The naval
strength which developed out of that war is the basis of today's American
military. As far as the war in Europe was concerned, England was biding its
time, doing nothing except for a few meaningless adventures in North Africa
and dropping bombs on Germany. Then the United States sent groups of
soldiers to England, dropping more bombs. All of this time Russia was doing
the fighting, sustaining millions of casualties. Much of Russia was laid to
waste. And yet in the face of this apocalyptic destruction, Russia was able
to establish armaments industries which were capable of overwhelming the
Germans. Only when the Germans were, for all intents and purposes defeated
by the Russians did the "Allies" dare to cross the English Chanel into
So where does that leave us today? The basis of American
military might, its aircraft carriers, if, through some magical "time warp"
they could be transported back into the Pacific of 1942, would really be
able to blow those enemy "Japs" out of the water. It would be a "turkey
shoot". And in the present day of 2020 the aircraft carriers are ideal for
bombing a few defenseless Arabian countries which happen to surround Israel
to smithereens. Also it must be lots of fun and excitement to take off and
land a fighter plane from the deck of such a ship. Hollywood and all the
"mainstream news" has a field day. Nevertheless, such aircraft carriers are
completely exposed to the newest generation of hypersonic cruise missiles
which can be fired at them in overwhelming salvos from hundreds, even
thousands of kilometers away. Imagine the American hysteria at the loss of
just one of those behemoths. A nuclear first strike against Russia by the
United States, with its missiles on "hair-trigger" alert, would not be far
away, leading to the corresponding annihilation of the United States and
much of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere following the Russian nuclear
The situation today is perhaps more dangerous than at any
other time since the second world war. Does the United States really want to
invade Iran? Does it really want to confront China in a naval battle over a
few coral islands half way across the world?
Finally, Martyanov discusses some of the myths Americans
have about Russia. Are Russians an ignorant, brutal people, incapable of
producing anything of value? Well, as far as mathematics is concerned this
is obviously not true. Many of the greatest mathematicians were Russians.
And what about Stalin, or Ivan the Terrible? As far as Stalin is concerned,
it is interesting to note that even during the height of his purges in the
late 1930s, the prison population of Russia was at most comparable to the
vast "gulag" of prisons in present-day America.
Before the Russian Revolution, the majority of the
Russian population was illiterate. Yet within a short time it became
industrialized. Education was universal, as was health care, and so on. The
fact that the Soviet Union collapsed into the hands of a drunken Boris
Yeltsin was not due to the efforts of that B-grade Hollywood actor, Ronald
Reagan. The Russian people wanted change, an end to the cold war. Yet,
tragically, this unique opportunity for lasting peace was destroyed by those
"experts" in their "think tanks" during the Bill Clinton era, taking
advantage of what they perceived as being a weakness of Russia. And so with
ever new levels of hysteria in America and ever new wars being started by
that country, we have been propelled into an even more dangerous second
"cold war". It seems that the United States cannot tolerate the fact that it
is not the all-powerful, unique military might which alone is able to order
the world according to its wishes.
I'm sure most of the people in the United States, at
least those whose brains have not been completely addled by the unified
"news" on television and in the newspapers, are not in agreement with this
state of affairs. But what can they do?
This was a very sobering book.