Book Review – Tom McCarthy “Men In Space” – a kaleidoscopic reflection on human uncertainty

Tom MCarthy’s novel Men in Space is a vertiginous journey of transcendent ambitions taking in political, aesthetic and metaphysical dimensions. Now if that’s not too pretentious a first line – let’s carry on. Set primarily in Eastern Europe on the cusp of the Velvet Divorce  between the Czechs and the Slovaks, the plot – such as it is – revolves around an eclectic cast of bohemian characters, whose various fates appear to be reflected and refracted through the imagery of a stolen Byzantine Icon painting that traverses Europe: from Sofia to Prague and Amsterdam.  With shifting narrative perspectives it’s a thoroughly absorbing multi-vocal study on punctured dreams and a world in chaotic disjuncture.

We have approximately seven main characters to whom we oscillate between, as the narrator’s voice takes in young wannabe artists, actual bohemian artists, a former Bulgarian football referee, political refugees, a curator, a disorientated police agent and the supporting cast of a society that’s waiting for a celebration of new life, but not entirely sure what it will bring. McCarthy has an acute grasp of human fragility, as he seeks to penetrate and deconstruct the foibles of human dreams. Although we only ever get partial perspectives from each character, he succintly captures their personalities and spirits as they intersects and intermingle, in an appropriate backdrop of political upheaval.

The political component serves more as metaphoric furniture than it does an intricate exploration of the particular dynamics; with a broad focus driven by plausibly autobiographical experiences through the eyes of Nick Boardman, a young Englishman  and key character living there.

The references to political leaders, the chase initiated by former agents of the USSR to pursue the painting, the New Years Eve party that marks the celebratory birth of the Czech Repubic, all allow for consideration of the story in it’s specific time and place – yet I would dispute a characterisation of the novel as not escaping it’s localised orbit.  Its thematic explorations are as acutely applicable now as they were then – even if we have the benefit of 15 years of post break up, and now post crash Europe to contend with. The melancholia of punctured dreams seem rather prophetic.

Anton, the Bulgarian referee whose role is helping his uncle Ilevski identify the right painter to do the job, has an arc that resonates particularly in a certain light for example. He has dreams of escaping this old world entirely – to get to the fabled land of America where he views with certainty a most prosperous future. The refugee escaping to promised lands, has marked currency today in the light of the migrant and refugee explosion in Europe now. Anton’s plan is to apply for an American visa and travel with his wife Helena once money is secured – but political and personal obstacles have been thrown in his way. It is a peculiarly poignant journey, and one that doesn’t escape the metaphysical link with this hypnotic painting. The stories of Nick, Heidi, Ivan, Joost, Helena, Han, Roger, and the nameless police guard – all have – in their own ways – their identities inextricably linked in to the Icon, and McCarthy’s skill in observing these paths unfurl is enjoyable to read.

The voice of Joost, a Dutch curator is to be found through his letters to his partner Han, whilst the police agent gives us his fragmented and increasingly surreal and disorientated reports on the pursuit of the stolen painting: – his voice reflecting a melancholic dissolution of purpose with the coming of the new world attached to  an obstinate refusal to adapt. They intersect and drive on a narrative that also includes the plotters behind the painting’s appropriation and planned sale, the painter commissioned to make copies of the artwork and the young artists caught up in the artists’ – Ivan Manasek – circle.

The writing is smart, and beautiful – the eye of the aficianado is  present in some of the discourse particularly relating to the artwork itself – discussion of codes reflects an interest in the theorists of postructuralism – but it is an effect expressed elegantly: the eliptical nature of the figurine depicted possesses a discombobulating effect on artists observing it – is it an ascension or a descent being portrayed? – the ambiguity is clearly intentional –  with Ivan the artist being consumed by it’s nature as he works on the copy.

Have no fear of being caught up in inaccessible pretension that can befall certain writers who are obsessed with a peculiar theorist, the book is very readable and engaging early on. Stylistically, the use of the present tense in introductions of each new character lent to me a distancing effect affect at first, akin to a surface documentation of a series of facts, but as each segment of narrative continues and oscillates with the other characters the perspective flourishes for the reader.  What has begun as a remote style in it’s brief hop between viewpoints takes on a greater intimacy as the novel develops.  The switch between this third person narrative and the letters of Joost, or the reports by the police agent, work wonderfully well in providing necessary thrust and depth to  this mosaic of a human portrait in uncertain flux during this time. They provide alternative perspectives to this story we have otherwise been more conventionally following through Anton, Nick and the rest.

It is Anton who provides the explanation of the titular reference: he discusses the fate of a Soviet Cosmonaut who is stranded in space – as he was sent up before the collapse of the USSR, now there is no state for him to come down to – a sentiment that sums up the main theme of the book the idea of human disconnection, struggling for transcendence in a febrile, yet fragile world.  And it was fascinating to read – as much as the human component I as much enjoyed the sense of place – the character of early 90’s Prague and Amsterdam was evoked with a plausible authenticity that swallowed my imagination whole and I look forward to delving into more of McCarthy’s work.

Book Review – Alex Bellos: “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland”

How many folds of a sheet of paper would it take to reach the moon? And how many more to the edge of the known universe? Clue: it’s less than a hundred.  Isn’t the idea of solving a mathematical conundrum by the simple act of inventing Imaginary numbers taking the piss? What is Euler’s Identity? Why is π not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be and what the hell do : τ, ℑ, ∫, ∑, ∝ all mean? Are all Cretans liars?

So many questions for which I don’t have an answer but here’s one chap who does: Alex Bellos. Alex’s Adventures in Numberland is a pop-sci book that  blurs the line between accessibility and brain-acher – at least for a chump like me who’s not had to try and decipher impenetrable equations for the best part of 15 years – but well worth the challenge nonetheless.

Working in a library I have become well used to spotting many varied books, both fiction and non-fiction that come in leaving me thinking ” I must read that”, “there’s another for the list” and “ooh that’s something different, why not?”  The list is presently a pretty modest two pages long so far, hopefully not too unhealthy after a year “in the service”, covering crime capers to classics, science books to politics, history, nature and philosophy.  This most recent one covers a hitherto under-read realm in my reading sphere.

As I am always acutely aware that there are so many subject areas that I know too little about, when a book pops up the list in one of those areas that I’ve allowed to go untouched for too long I welcome the opportunity to renew acquaintances. And so MATHS!  I remember at least some classes at school being not completely awful and as maths is in everything, everywhere according to all the science documentaries, why not find out more? At the very least I was able to go into this one with the surefire guarantee there would no exam waiting at the end of this book.

This is Bellos’ second book – a fact I discovered upon reading the first pages – so I would assume he’s accustomed to judging the level required for the lay reader – and one certainly cannot be a lazy reader if you want to enjoy what he has to offer. Across ten chapters the author draws out a thematic exploration of some of the key discoveries in mathematics history, roughly keeping it to a chronological narrative where possible  – though there’s plenty of room for back and forth – it’s no surprise to see the Ancient Greeks regularly re-appear with each new chapter.  Each section comes in roughly three acts, designed to help you keep up with the fast moving flow of the argument : i) an accessible introduction with an anecdote or two to help establish the context, ii) a fleshed out middle bit that goes into specific details, often using graphs and pictorial assistance to convey the significance claimed initially, before moving swiftly into iii); a conclusion that assumes you’ve taken all the information in in one nice digested mouthful and are ready to move on to the next – connected – discovery.

If you’ll excuse the consumption metaphor here a moment – certain chapters go down more easily than others, the opener is a pleasant aperitif that considers how societies have various relationships and superstitions with certain numbers – in Japan there is a  particular reverence for 3, 5 and 7 – but don’t like 4 . The reason being the word for 4 – shi – is also the word for death. Likewise the number 9’s homophone ku also means torture. I can’t help but feel this was an avoidable confusion, but then linguistic evolution everywhere can be quite mad.

There are surprising statements that can be drawn on so simple an issue as odd and even numbers – historically and culturally there has been a gendered split in association – the number one and odd numbers in general are considered more masculine, whereas even numbers have feminine links – or so suggest certain studies cited in the chapter.  We –  in its most general sense – also are rather fond of even numbers because of their ease of understanding – a point that can be intuitively accepted quite easily. We generally “like” seeing the number 50 more than we would 23 for example. Understandable, I can’t stand 23.  This observation  has not gone unnoticed by researchers for Advertising companies. However much we would consciously protest we would not be duped by such superficial differences, we are far more likely to buy a product called Solus 36 than one called Solus 37 – so say the statistics at least!

Thus, the opening chapter is an enjoyably breezy and informative overview of some of the ways people respond to and interact with numbers – interesting, accessible and digestible – the ham salad of starters.  It isn’t necessarily a gradual linear progression from smooth mouthfuls to calling for Dr. Heimlich, but there are – for the more rustier mathematicians approaching this – certain parts that will require a clear head, a pitcher of coffee and more than just a one hour lunch window of reading time to get stuck in.

In chapter 7, the abstraction of mathematical concepts has come to the fore with the question of Imaginary numbers – a concept that was invented to deal with the somewhat vexatious issue of negative numbers. We remember ( well so claims Alex)  from school that a negative times a positive is a negative, and a negative times a negative is a positive right? So what’s the square root of -1?  An apt response comes from the 16th century Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardono who revealed that thinking about these things “gave him mental tortures.

It is a position that I had some sympathy with at the trickier parts of the book.  For the lay reader who’s not touched equations in a long time, there will be times where you may, like me,  having to re-read words like sinesoid and parabolica several times before you understand what is going on. However, once you do get there, there is a satisfying sense of at least being able to appreciate at a basic level why those more “in the know” are in awe of certain breakthroughs. The development of understanding of the triangle, conical shapes, and angles, and it’s practical application in the worlds they emerge in is fascinating. For me at least, the word triangulation now actually means something! Being able to calculate far off distances for travelling ships or the position of the stars in the sky using the same simple principle is fascinating and rewarding to read once you’ve settled your mind into a mathematical approach.

In fairness Bellos is upfront about the varying level of technical language used to explain these concepts and one has the sense that there is a limit below which an explanation behind the notation and terminology for Imaginary numbers, quadernicons, and infinitesimals would be too simplistic to make it worthwhile. Still, there is enough to be able to enjoy to compensate for the parts where you may find your brain curled up in the fetal position demanding a more straight forward read (I duly followed up with some PG Wodehouse after finishing this).  I tried to take notes on most of the chapters I read with a little bit of information for each one, and I succeeded mostly – although Chapter 8 in my notebook simply reads: “Calculus – hmm, something Newton, 1800s, infinitesimal, help.”

On the other hand, and looping back to my introduction the nature and spectacular size of doubling explained through folding paper is a strikingly succinct way of conveying the exponential swiftness of growth. A 0.1mm fold of paper, folded 6 times has the thickness of a small book, a further 6 folds ( doubling ) gets you close to a metre in size. So far no quibble from the brain. But then it begins to take off rather quickly. Another 6 folds leads to a height equivalent to that of the Arc de Triomphe. Now we’re at 18 folds. It takes just a further 22 doubling folds to reach the Moon. It makes straightforward sense when you see the numbers written down, and multiplied by 2, but this visualistion lends a resounding sense of “wow” about this very simple idea.

The final chapter that discusses proofs is a welcome relief after the more abstract concepts that have preceded it, with Euclid’s Elements invoked to remind us how savvy those Ancient Greeks were,  and discussion of the cellular computation behind the mathematical plaything The Game of Life neatly brings old and new together to sign off a challenging but engaging book about numbers and maths. After an appropriate break I’ll happily try out Bellos’ first book in this area, and I do recommend it for those with an interest in numbers and popular science books – it is a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf, but for now, where are you Jeeves?

Book Review: Stephen Baxter’s ‘Proxima’ – An Enjoyable Romp In Sci-Fi

Before diving into the review, I must first state a  mea culpa of sorts. Science Fiction has always been a genre renowned for being big on the epic ideas and adventures -both physically and philosophically – yet for some unfathomable reason, despite enjoying the visual TV and film treats ranging from Star-Trek through to Red Dwarf, Blade Runner through to Battlestar Galactica and Interstellar, I have to confess I have rarely ventured into the literary realm.  I have tangentially entering it through a bit of Terry Pratchett or Neil Gaiman – both of whom I love to read – and whose works fantastically capture the imagination, but to my arbitrary categorising mind still appears a ‘genre-removed’ from ‘Sci-Fi-authenticus’ if you will.

I suspect this is in part due to an unconscious bias that always seems to prioritise the great many other novels that are on the infinitely expanding “to do list” as if somehow the knowledge or enjoyment gained from sci-fi texts is potentially less than that from the more conventional form. It’s a nonsensical logic, of course, and reflective of a mild prejudice perhaps on my behalf. In my weakened defence – it wasn’t for the lack of trying in my younger days, I did attempt some Iain M. Banks (The Algebraist) and even one of the most revered names in the genre – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation – but alas neither gripped me, whether it was the abstract worlds or the occasionally unpronouncable names, there was to a degree a distancing in the style that I regrettable couldn’t take to then. Since which, I have added many a title to the to do list, but it has taken until now to get round to throwing myself into the world properly, with Proxima by Stephen Baxter.

It’s premise drew me in swiftly: – always handy when you’re a tentative newcomer to a genre – Proxima is a red dwarf star within the Alpha Centauri star system – the closest to our own, and provider of the stage for the subject of 22nd century interstellar interplanetary travel and colonial expansion of mankind. Mars has already been colonised, whilst Mercury too has become habitable within its own Dome world. The first wave of colonisers are those forcibly selected for the adventure – inviting an analogy with the convicts sent out to Australia – amongst whom is Yuri; a young man who has been cryogenically frozen and awoken 80 years later, who serves as one of the main character conduits through which the exploration of alien ecology and interstellar travel is undertaken.

His displacement from his own time, provides the narrative device for certain plot expositions to take place.  Yuri is sent down with a small number of colonists – a number that swiftly dwindles – and doomed to this new planetary landscape – one where one half of the planet has the Sun constantly in the sky, and possessing its’ own unique stem-based life forms. Trapped light years from the rest of mankind, the central focus of the narrative on prox e or Per Ardua ( Latin: through adversity ) as it becomes known by the newly enforced locals is an engaging ( though not original ) study of life in a new world with a tiny handful of colonists / survivors and the AI ‘ColU’ machine – again an expedient device for dishing out some of the fascinating science, both fact-based and speculative.

Allied to this storyline we also follow the tale of Stef Kalinski, who we first meet as a young girl based on Mercury supporting her renowned scientist father. It is 2159 and her father is working on a project to send ‘Angelia’ a light-based but also sentient technology to Proxima.  Advances have clearly been made to allow humans to man Mercury, and in terms of the science behind this Baxter invents the development of ‘Kernels’, which have provided the means by which mankind has been able to travel across the solar system in practical fashion.  Kalinksi is the science savvy super-curious protagonist whose path will inevitably collide with Yuri’s on a planet 4.2 light years away. Beyond both of these personal narratives is the backdrop of political tensions beween the competing blocs of  a large scale United Nations and a powerful China, competing for influence that extends beyond the global and into the solar system, and the Kernel technology is at the heart of simmering tensions.

The story thus  alternates between these two worlds, with the heavier focus on Per Ardua, and Baxter does a fine job in establishing a mysterious enigma in the plot that will serve to facilitate the convergence of Stef and Yuri’s lives. The intrigue and suspense is built up very well, though it seems only fair to say that towards the end you realise you are very much reading a narrative that is not going to conclude or explain the various contrivances until the sequel ( ‘Ultima’ – and my eagerness to read this is clearly a credit to the storytelling of Baxter ).  How the lives of Yuri and Kalinksi collide is engrossing, and one weakness for me – possibly as a result of the set up for sequel – is that there are certain flashpoint moments for characters within the story for which I’d love more exploration but are denied by the swift pace of the plot. In order to encompass the grand ideas and conceits within the story sees use follow the lives of the characters over many decades.

This scope of grand time elapsing is clearly necessary for the plot, which represents great ambition and is a reflection of a focus on the big rather than the small, which is probably what I am more used to – reading character arcs within a much more contained timespan – so perhaps I am being unfair. Indeed the spectre of the sequel does suggest further consideration of both the concept and human reflections and I very much look forward to reading more.  The content and the imagination of the worlds and technologies envisioned is easily the strongest component of the novel, though in Stef and Yuri in particular there are two main characters who are sufficiently interesting psychologically to help drive your attention forward.

If I am critical, the exposition of the plot at times struck me as a little clunky and stylistically I wasn’t always enamoured by some of the very brief chapters – one was merely a 5 line paragraph. I can understand the method, in separating the focus from one planet and character to the next, but it jarred with me at times personally. Additionally whilst I am more of a content rather than style consumer of fiction, there were still a few areas where the writing was a little unsatisfying and could have thrived with a little more polish.

All in all however it was a successful foray into the world of Sci-Fi fiction for me and I do look forward to reading more, not only the follow up to this book, but other authors too. If you like Sci-Fi yourself and have any particular recommendations yourself, do let me know!

Book Review, Politics – ‘A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain’

Reading political books such as these never fails to frustrate, annoy and impose itself onto my conscience due to the rising tide of anger it incites along with the obligated sense of purpose it instills in me to spread the word. Normally, I just rage inwardly or adopt the usual exasperated mood of resignation but once in a while, some books demand a little more than that, however self-consciously awkward it makes me feel to get so irate, and Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell’s book which came out last year is essential reading for anyone, regardless of place on the political spectrum who holds onto at least some hope for an open democracy.

It’s premise is looking at the inevitably dangerous relationship between wealth, power and influence – a problem that is hardly new to human civilization as any anthropologist / historian / sociologist / common sensist will tell you. The focus in this instance though is through the contemporary practice of (specifically corporate) lobbying.

Lobbying, of course, is at its core a perfectly legitimate democratic act and is available – in theory – to any individual who seeks or petitions change at the governmental level to existing practices to suit their interests: from social legislation to get rid of discriminatory attitudes, to how best investment programmes or austerity cuts should be allocated or targeted. It is also a very human act – it is the relationship of power dynamics between people and is visible in any area where influence is sought – however minor. The authors of the book express this explicitly – acknowledging that in the writing of this book, they are also hoping to lobby for their own opinion of the network between politicians, lobbyists and PR business’ to be influenced by reading this text.

That understood, the great problem comes in our access to understanding and being aware who is exerting these influences. We know that authors of a text are trying to persuade of particular values or ideas through the imprint of their names on the front cover, in addition to a synopsis on the back cover. We have an idea on the perspectives and / or qualifications involved on those who are producing this text.  We can inform ourselves happily enough of the credentials of those seeking our favour.

At the other end of the scale, we have governments with huge reserves of cash and influence to offer, and a select few people who seek to buy and control those ‘products’. And of this, we know disturbingly little – the disturbing component derived from many examples taken from private money’s interventions into the NHS, Education, Foreign Trade etc. This fact won’t come as a huge surprise to those with the vaguest awareness of the problems with politics today. Anyone with a pulse can sigh and put forward the suggestion to “follow the money.” Yet, whilst this is true, I suspect too few of us go on to explore the detail and consider the wider ramifications of these secretive arrangements between the un-elected, unaccountable power brokers.  This book provides an undeniably ambitious compendium of lobbying in Britain in the 21st century.

Whilst the chapters are on occasion quite dense, chock full with cited references, and an array of politicians and personalities for whom keeping track of names and professions can be frustrating, the value of its over-riding thesis remains starkly evident. The imposition of agendas by those who wield spectacular power, with feeble checks available against this, is concerning. We see how the waters have been muddied in communication discourse on legislative agendas from the smoking ban ( see the pernicious influence of the Phillip Morris International group ) to Citigroup and the financial industry’s opposition to regulation. The consequences of deregulation in the financial sector in the past few decades are certainly not hidden.

The nature of frequently disingenous re-framing of arguments, have helped sway political decisions their way, and the media bigwigs themselves come in for their fare share of criticism – the fourth estate often style themselves as the unofficial extra check against abuse of powers, yet they themselves act as the primary medium through which messages from top to bottom and vice-versa are channeled – and how far this medium is manipulated is examined intensely in this book. Even in the age of the “open-access” social media and twitter revolutions, the controlled messages from the more established wings of the press core face far less scrutiny than one would like from so-called professional journalists. A very contemporary example to support this claim can be seen with the allegations surrounding the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of tax fraud concerns with HSBC.  The erosion of trust within media organisations only serves to make it harder for the average man and woman to find out what exactly is going on behind the headlines.

This is arguably the book’s strength, focusing on these concerns, and providing examples of associated  lobbying craft – so called astro-turf campaigns for example – established to promote a cause by lending it the appearance of an ‘independent’ grassroots movement that supports a companies agenda.  These movements often have figureheads that appear detached from external influence and seem to be superficially an appropriately connected person, but conceal a particular agenda. An example cited in the book is that of Nurses for Reform, an organisation that sounds genuine  with the NHS always battling against underfunding and its consequences for patient care. Yet further investigation  reveals that she’s an advocate of private health investment, and referred to the NHS as a ’60 year mistake, halfway to Moscow and admired by Hitler’.  She was given unchecked prime airtime on Radio 2 and had an audience with David Cameron a month before the 2010 elections. Nurses for Reform was heavily supported by lobbyists and right wing think tanks – yet how much of that information was available to the average listener on the radio show or in the news at large for them to be able to appreciate the vested interests? None. Liberal Conspiracy explore the issue further here.

There are many others, supported by numerous references within the book providing empirically based concern as to why the imbalance in influence in our country is having deleterious effects on such fancy notions as democracy, and public accountability.

On the down side, as well as the dense nature of some of the early chapters – which can be difficult to read through with any great ease, come the flaws in over extending its reach. The book takes on examples of malign influence across a wide spectrum of corporate greed’s influence – where perhaps one would like to see more focus attached to one industry itself – and the limitations that inevitably come with a business practice that demands secrecy means that often we have merely strong inferences rather than outright proof of the links between each wing.

Nevertheless, it is of great value to any discerning reader interested to know more of the shady practices that are allowed to manipulate and frustrate our politics when transparency is taken off the agenda. Please Read!

Book Review: War Report A Record of Dispatches Broadcast By The BBC’s war correspondents June 5th 1944 – to May 1945

 

Still procrastinating from reading more Camus, my next review retains it’s Second World War theme as I noticed a new release of War Broadcast Correspondence from the BBC during the final year of the conflict from Operation Overlord ( D-Day ) through to VE Day in 1945. As a stubborn defender of the BBC in the current climate and with this historical period always proving intensely fascinating, I tucked in with my curiosity piqued.

It is in short, well worth a read. It covers all the key period’s of the fighting in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany during this period, with each segment of the transcripts contextualized by an authorial overview at its head, from the beach landings through the liberation of Cherbourg, the winter battle in the Ardennes, the march through Germany and liberation of concentration camps. With such a broad span to cover, the book succeeds through these dispatches in providing an intimate narrative of how the war appeared to be progressing from a first person viewpoint.  There are frequent references to guns being fired immediately overhead, tanks rolling by mere metres away and explosive devices landing remarkably close: italicized references to the sounds heard on the transcript provide a sense of the atmosphere these reports must have contained.

The transcripts are essentially word for word what was spoken down the line, and highlight the degree to which these reporters were embedded at the front line. They received professional army training before heading out and were welcomed pretty warmly by the soldiers themselves, for whom the value of hearing the latest reports from across the battle fields was paramount.  Furthermore of course, there was also its well known value as an aid for Resistance movements, not least de Gaulle’s Free France network, and the provision of essential communication between covert groups and alliances.

Although there is always a slight panegyric tone with books like these, it also seems hard to disagree with the notion that during this war in particular, the stock of BBC broadcasting was universally high at this point. BBC transmitters, masts and receivers that had to be transported and set up on the Normandy beaches, then taken in-land with the Allied advances,  were utilized by an international cross-section of reporters, including many American, Canadian and Australian reporters. As someone who’d enjoyed the film Good Night and Good Luck – a biopic of Edward Murrow an American anchor during McCarthyism –  it was additionally interesting to discover entries here from the same reporter during the war.

It’s influence extended to vast swathes of the populations of France, Belgium, Netherlands and even Germany too, eager to try and stay updated with the war’s progress. There is even a testament from a German citizen who valued for the BBC for being relied upon for truth –  which evidently could not be said for the inevitable propaganda propagated by the Nazi’s, and when the BBC reported an Allied victory it was accepted by many Germans, whose personal experience of the war was no longer tallying with the messages espoused by their own communications.

Perhaps of particular interest from my own perspective, is it’s revelation of contemporary attitudes to elements of the conflict, that those of us who have grown up well after the event and read about from a safe vantage point, perhaps don’t always appreciate. When they reach Germany for example there are frequent examples of many of the locals looking to welcome the Allied troops with a celebrated air of relief, at times cheering them on, or if they’re a soldier immediately surrendering and asking where the prisoner of war line started. It was, no doubt at the end of the war, but it was also fascinating to see how the Allies responded with a cool indifference to this approach, avoiding any sense of overt intimacy with an enemy, an approach that unsettled the locals. The cool response becomes more obviously understandable when the unmasking and liberation of the concentration camps occurs, and you realise you are reading the words of those who are coming across this scenes for the first time and attempting to articulate a response that convey the fury felt well before any of the testimonies of the likes of Primo Levi or Robert Antelme later shocked the world.

The book provides an accessible history and chronology of the conflict, viewed through the multi-vocal perspectives of numerous war correspondents from around the globe, interspersed with many contributions from vital actors in this combustible theatre:  pilots, commanders, soldiers and local inhabitants all contributing too. It is  a fascinating document of war journalism at it’s best and provides a useful perspective in it’s eye-witness serialization of a subject matter that is frequently read about from voices several generations removed from the events portrayed.

 

 

 

Book Review – Defying The Nazis In Vichy France – Caroline Moorehead

Before moving on to more Camus, my latest library book to read was a new non-fiction book that was released this year, and oddly enough was about  the real world history that provided Camus with his allegory for The Plague (“La Peste”).

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This historical account looked to explore the reality behind a world that saw  communities on a geographically – and in some sense spiritually –  remote Plateau in southern France save or assist the lives of hundreds if not a few thousand children from the violent fate of internment and deportation and subsequent death in the Polish camps.

Like many accounts of French resistance during the war, this event  has not escaped the mythologizing trend of the post-war generations and Moorehead is upfront about the challenges of discovering and re-constructing the ‘truth’ from a multitude of competing sources, and eye-witness accounts. She has travelled around the world interviewing survivors and has immersed herself in the documents of the period including several personal diaries of key protagonists. That these numerous accounts do not always match up is a fact the author ensures we are keenly aware of.  She further references a colloquium that was held in 1990 on the Vivarais-Lignon Plateau at Le Chambon,  attended by many inhabitants and survivors  that broke into fierce rancour over memory wars.

Certain memories have more favourable impressions of some of the german officers stationed there, such as Bach and Schmauling, whereas others are more cynical. In a world where secrecy and the ability to possess a deceptively deadpan grasp for duplicity, asserting knowledge of the motive for many of the actors here is naturally challenging. The capacity for resistance was not uniform,  and for some it was as simple as passively accepting the enlarged community, others it was a case of not informing the authorities, on a point of principle: this is our world, outsiders can sod off, including Vichy and Hitler. Moorehead, fronts up about the ambiguous recollections and representations of these, and other personalities, allowing as far as possible the reader to consider the reality for themselves.

With this in mind, Moorehead does exceptionally well to create a coherent thread that weaves through many of the key characters who helped rescue, shelter and protect the children in the villages upon the hill, whilst also deploying the typical caution of a historian wary of asserting a definitive truth where evidence is either limited or too conflicted.  The narrative unfolds along a broadly chronological strand, introducing initial victims of the internment camps at Gurs or Rivesaltes, with accompanying depiction of the appalling conditions those detained there endured.

The spectre of the Holocaust remains central to the narrative: this is in no way a focus on a secluded, detached world far from the horrors of persecution. There are numerous tales of those for whom the capriciousness of fate saw one set of children successfully escape a camp, whilst another did not, and died either at Drancy or in Poland.  However many Holocaust testimonies one may read, the power of reading emotive histories of the tragedy never fails to leave an impact, such as happens with that of the naming of little Sylvie Mancker… ‘who was gassed on arrival at Auschwitz, on her first birthday.’

Religion appears to play a significant part in this particular tale, with many of the resisters fiercely protestant in their devotion to resisting evil. And whilst the general community are mainly Protestant here – Moorehead includes an interesting account of the religious background of the locale – they are assisted by many other denominations, not least of all the very active Darbyists sect whose role is to be thoroughly commended, whilst there are Jewish groups ( where it is possible ) and some Catholic priests too who also provide assistance. Indeed, despite the rather sad and depressing decision making taken at the head of the Catholic Church during this period, at the ground level there were plenty who were revolted by the treatment of Jews.

The greatest strength in this book is in how Moorehead brings great depth to the Pastors, Abbe’s and individual lives of those who lived there; the impact of the magnetic Andre Trocme or the resilient spirit of Daniel Curtet for example;  those who ran the multitude  schools and homes that were established there to care for the effectively orphaned children by this point, and those who rescued kids from the internment camps and/or helped take some across the Swiss borders into safety, at extreme risk, and sadly not all were successful. It is also a complex web that links many of the characters together, and it is far from a clearcut depiction of simple heroism. As mentioned, there are enigmatic characters, for whom neither a characterisation of ‘collabo’ or ‘resisteur’ would be appropriate,  and many inhabitants who acted out of a sense of unavoidable duty rather than a pro-active direct warmth towards the voluminous guests that were imposed on their villages.

Lucid, evocative and informative it provides a fascinating historical narrative of a community for whom a natural sensibility for humility and quiet spirit has not been as broadly known as perhaps it should be. It touches on the memorial debates that have persisted for decades ever since the first challenges to the Petainist and de Gaullist myths of the immediate post-war world arose from the mid 1960s onwards, and invites the reader to examine the history with a cautious mind but throughout, the level research and engaging articulation successfully convey the tension and danger of the activity that was undertaken during the Occupation.

Furthermore, on a personal note it is interesting as a companion piece to reading La Peste previously There are frequent references to Camus’ stay in this region and it’s impact on his creation of his famous allegorical tale, and meeting characters who may well have provided the real life inspiration for characters such as Dr. Rieux – in Moorehead’s book we meet a Dr. Forestier – a deeply principled man – whose characterisation is humane, memorable and all more tragic for it’s fatal ending – he was one of the unlucky ones caught by the Gestapo and Milice and executed, but not before playing a hugely vital role in assisting the saving of many others. Forestier, like all the others named here, deserve their stories to be heard, for there positive model of human resistance, and affirmation of decency in a tremendously dark spell in European history, are welcome histories.

Book Review – The Plague by Albert Camus

Camus’ allegorical tale of a town under siege from a pestilential onslaught is amongst his most famous works. Having heard much about the subject matter, and intrigued by the notion of the Absurd raised in the only other Camus text I have read to date – The Stranger – I was curious to see how the philosophy was played out in this narrative.

Set in Oran, the threat is swiftly announced by the gloomy portent of an ever growing number of rats dying across the town. A clinically arresting visual, that announces the severity of the impending threat graphically and succintly. Unfolding in 5 parts, the chronicle of this beleagured and endangered town is marshalled chiefly through the eyes of Doctor Rieux ( later revealed to be the narrator ), who interracts with and observes the many different ways the citizens respond to the mental pressures of being trapped within quarantine.

The philosophical message that comes through to my mind is quite clear, in a time of crisis, questions of purpose and resistance become narrowed down to core principles: resistance against any form of terror, regardless of how overwhelming the enemy force is, or how futile it may seem ,is not only essential, but simply inevitable in it’s effect on one’s sense of self-identity. Communal solidarity supercedes individual desires, an ethos exemplified by the character of Rambert, the journalist who spends much of the novel plotting an escape home to his partner, from whom he has been separated, only to realise when the opportunity does arise, he belongs at the side or Rieux and Tarrou assisting the plague. To have left, despite a sympathetic cause at it’s heart, would have involved an undermining of a more powerful tie to his humanity, that of solidarity – the levelling effect of the suffering of a force that does not discriminate class or motive in it’s attacks.

As a student of the second world war and the Resistance in France, one can make an evident parallel with the struggles faced by those trapped in Nazi occupied territories, and the dilemmas of those seeking to communicate with the outside world or those who despite limited abilities find a form of resistance sometimes merely in adopting a state of mind – the premise of solidarity as a necessary expression of identity here is quite clear cut.

It is wrong however to ascribe with any certainty one particular event in mind, the tale is written in a ‘pandemic’ fashion, that is to say that the underpinning of the message as a global allegory is rooted in it’s philosophical structures and of Absurdism. I am not sufficiently cogent in the philosophical language to elucidate further, though I will be endeavouring to read The Myth of Sisyphus  – the essay where Camus expands directly on such concepts to find out more.

In terms of reading pleasure, I will admit it took me a while to take to the style of writing. I don’t think the issue was with translation, whilst it also didn’t help I was forced to read the book only in very brief bursts sometimes as few as 10-15 pages at a time, which never helps one get into a ryhthym. However there is a classically ‘French’ element to the writing at times, which I personally find does require extra discipline to get through! That said, it is a text rich with ideas within it, and definitely should be on most people’s to read list!