28 December 2015

All Steak, No Sizzle

The Man Who Recorded the World
by John Szwed

As a musician and music lover with a strongly developed sense of history, I have great respect for the late Alan Lomax and his work as a musicologist. This one man studied, recorded and preserved an improbably large share of the extant corpus of American folk music. The influence of his recordings and writings on the development of popular music in the late twentieth century is matched by no-one else, not even Bob Dylan. Without Lomax, Dylan might never have existed. More broadly still, black American music might have had a harder struggle and possibly even failed to find a mass white audience without his efforts, which means the great musical explosion that resulted from this cultural conjunction couldn’t have happened without him either. The world owes Alan Lomax an incommensurable artistic debt.

I was excited when I picked up this book. The little I knew about Lomax – his shoestring travels across America with a recording machine in the trunk of his car, his risky encounters with redneck cops, prison wardens and the suspicious poor, his adoption of the blues singer Leadbelly, his tireless championship of black causes, his troubles with Senator McCarthy and the FBI, his purist rejection of artists like Dylan who put the material he had discovered and preserved to their own artistic uses – made it plain that he had been a thoroughly fascinating character, the sort of man about whom it would be impossible to write a dull book. This, after all, was the fellow who ended up rolling in the dirt with Albert Grossman at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 after Grossman caught him and Pete Seeger trying to take an axe to a power cable while Dylan and his band were on stage. How could a book about a man like that be boring?

Oh, easy. Just leave it to John Szwed. An associate of Lomax during the great man’s later years, his attitude towards his subject is adoringly, obsessively hagiographic. In this plodding, barely readable book, the arc of Lomax’s life-story is lost to view under a leaden mass of irrelevant detail. It seems that Szwed was determined to capture every move and gesture made by his subject, to describe and comment upon every essay, article, letter, postcard or shopping-list that Lomax ever wrote, regardless of its relative importance or thematic value. This suffocating mass of fact completely obscures what is really important in Lomax’s story. One of the most important traits of a biographer or historian is selectivity. Szwed appears quite incapable of it.

He is also incapable of admitting any serious faults in his hero, despite the evidence – given to us here in as much tedious detail as everything else – that Lomax was manipulative, selfish and self-serving, and tended to exploit and betray the women in his life. The author finds excuses for it all. Lomax was academically and politically quarrelsome – but in this book it’s always the other guy’s fault. Szwed does not even scruple to slap on a coat or two of whitewash if the occasion demands it. Having abandoned sequential reading about three-fifths of the way through the book, I skipped forward to see what the author had to say about the Newport incident and found that he barely mentions it, and then only to dismiss it as ‘apocryphal’. This is simply untrue; several eyewitnesses have gone down in print with their descriptions of the incident and there is no doubt that it happened.

This dreary, misleading book has only one redeeming quality: the obsessive depth of its scholarship with respect to matters concerning its subject. Perhaps one day a real historian or biographer will find it useful as a map to the territory and produce a really good biography of Alan Lomax. There’s no doubt that one is needed. This isn’t it.

17 December 2015

Home Never Looked So Good

The New Granta Book of Travel
Edited by Liz Jobey

This was a considerable disappointment. I enjoy superior travel writing, by which I mean the work of authors like Sir Richard Burton, Robert Byron, Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. The last three are collected here, and Raban also contributes an introduction. Seeing their names on the contents page were, for me, part of the incentive for picking up this anthology.

Which turns out to be, largely, a collection of pieces by Oxbridge alumni about their travels in some of the world’s nastier places. Disaster and woe are pervasive: there are accounts here of a devastating flood on the Mississippi (Raban), the way of life of an Iraqi insurgent (Wendell Steavenson), the 2004 Asian tsunami as experienced in Sri Lanka (John Bornemon), and life under the gun in Kashmir (Basharat Peer). Even when external circumstances are not as overtly threatening as these, the quantum of misery in most of the pieces is high.

Thus we are privy to the anxieties and feelings of dislocation suffered by a newly arrived Ugandan refugee in England (Albino Ochero-Okello), the trials of a homosexual in a primitive tribal culture (Pierre Clastres), the collapse of the Bengal jute industry (Ian Jack), and the mutual exploitation of locals and foreign tourists at Thai holiday resorts (Decca Aitkenhead). Paul Theroux contributes a short, shameful confession of a similar kind, and W.G. Sebald writes of his compulsive, neurotic and possibly metafictional travels round Europe. Redmond O’Hanlon fails to find the Congo Dinosaur but worries about picking up AIDS instead. Rory Stewart gives us Pakistan as a failed state in thrall to a failed religion. I kept the tsunami story for last, because I am Sri Lankan, and found it a thorough disappointment — dull, culturally blinkered and poorly observed.

Essentially, this is a book of travel writing featuring places nobody in their right mind would ever want to visit. I suppose the editor was trying to be edgy and original, or something, but surely one of the great pleasures of travel writing is that of sharing an accomplished author’s experience of a place one dreams of visiting. There’s barely a smidgen of that here. Most of the non-awful locations visited are in the British Isles. Of the exceptions to this rule, Bruce Chatwin’s contribution is just a notebook excerpt, while James Buchan’s portrait of a small Iowa town is sapless and full of boring statistics.

There were three pieces I liked. O’Hanlon’s contribution, depressing as it was, was nevertheless meaty and full of human and natural interest; I didn’t exactly enjoy it, but I greatly admired it. Colin Thubron’s memoir of a journey through Siberia was also excellent. The best essay in the book for me was the least pretentiously written: Decca Aitkenhead’s ‘Lovely Girls, Very Cheap’, which offers a devastatingly accurate account of sex and drugs tourism in Thailand. It kept me reading and nodding my head all the way to the end. This woman is a brilliant, empathetic observer.

Apart from these three fine pieces, though, this anthology is rubbish. Its character is perfectly distilled in one of the shorter essays, Andrew O’Hagen’s description of a voyage down the Clyde in a sewage scow in the company of a group of gluttonous old-age pensioners. This particular piece can stand as a metaphor for the whole book.

16 December 2015

Be My Enemy
by Ian McDonald

I loved the first book in this series, Planesrunner. I loved this one too, because it kept me hooked all the way through and left me bereft and disappointed when I turned the last page.

Yes, the basic conceit and the plot are a bit too close to those of Iain M. Banks’s Transition for comfort — down to the mantis-like sexiness of the Chief Villainess — but the concept of a chase across parallel timelines in different universes is big enough to accommodate both novels and a few dozen others as well. McDonald’s narrative and imaginative powers are strong enough that the comparison with Banks, one of the best writers who ever took up science fiction, does not shame him.

Unfortunately, there is a great big hole in the plot of this sequel, which rather spoils the fun. I won’t reveal it here, except to say it concerns electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs. It’s not a scientific booboo. It’s a storytelling booboo — a very bad one, which seriously spoils an otherwise great read.

Less devastatingly, but rather annoyingly, I found Mr McDonald, whose intelligence I have always heretofore admired, talking utter rubbish in places here. At one point our juvenile hero, Everett Singh, ‘discovers’ that you can’t be afraid on your own because ‘fear needs an audience’. Really? I can’t count the times I’ve been afraid and alone. Another time, Everett says that ‘guns don’t make people feel powerful’. Try telling that to the sick losers who take their revenge against society through mass shootings.

A brilliant read all the same, and a superbly poised transition-point ending.
Can’t wait for Everness #3.
by Ian McDonald

I found this great juvenile while looking in the library for more books by Ian McDonald, whose The Dervish House I recently finished and thoroughly enjoyed.

This book isn’t a complex interweaving of plot-lines and cultures like The Dervish House, although there is some of the latter. It’s a ‘straightforward’ tale about a mentally gifted but otherwise normal adolescent boy who follows his kidnapped physicist father into a parallel universe — the book takes Hugh Everett’s ‘many worlds’ hypothesis of quantum mechanics as fact — in order to rescue him. It features a fabulous airship piloted by a teenage girl runaway with snow-white hair, a sexy evil villainess and a device that allows them, as well as various other props and characters, to jump from one universe to another.

Although written for young people, I found the book compelling and convincing as an adult reader. The scientific speculation is credible and so is the psychology, the characters are vivid and easy to identify with, the level of tension and excitement is perfectly maintained and the whole thing is thoroughly believable. It also drew me right in.

Congratulations to Mr McDonald on a modest but perfectly realized achievement. Now to find the other books in the series.

20 November 2015

The Poet Has Come Down to Earth

The Book of My Enemy
by Clive James

I love a good poem, which is why I so rarely read any poetry. But there are no stinkers – none that I found, anyway – and few clunkers in this collection of Clive James’s career in verse. 

Mr James is often cleverer than many readers will be willing to tolerate, and his Ian Flemingish love of scientific and technical terminology, and of unpoetic objects like Focke-Wulf Fw. 152s, will put some readers off – especially if they happen to be female. I don’t suppose his general view of things would appeal to many women, anyway. Clive’s a man’s man. That’s okay with me.

Since most of these poems were written in the Seventies and Eighties, there’s a Cold War day-before-Doomsday air about many of them. Reading them today almost makes one nostalgic:

Snow falls again. The atmosphere turns white.
The airfields of East Anglia are socked in.
The atom bombers will not fly tonight.
Tonight the Third World War will not begin.

The earlier verse tends to be shorter, less ambitious and more involved with traditional poetical concerns — that is, with what Wordsworth called ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’. I didn’t care for it so much. The later verse, in James’s mature style, is about just about everything, and it’s brilliant.

A generation ago, London literary pundits debated whether James was even a poet. Hadn’t he started out as a pop songwriter (and a not very successful one at that)? Didn’t his embrace of old Italian rhyme-schemes (ottava, terza rima) suggest an unhealthy obsession with technical matters, and perhaps an agoraphobic recoil from the wide open spaces of Modernism? The self-consciousness with which he deployed these metres suggests that he wasn’t too sure about it himself. Being Australian didn’t help, of course. 

Still, a poet and a good one is what Mr James indubitably is. And now that he’s translated the whole of Dante’s Commedia, it seems people are willing to accept him as one. Good on old Clive; those laurels were hard-earned. Here’s a collection of the work he did to earn them, and it’s brilliant. Buy. Read. Enjoy.

27 October 2015


The Gift of Rain
by Tan Twan Eng

Mr Tan starts out with a brilliant set of ingredients: the island of Penang immediately before and during the Second World War and the Japanese occupation; a handsome Eurasian boy, just coming of age, who unlike most of his kind is from the highest ranks of both English and Chinese society; a mysterious Japanese diplomat who rents a small island belonging to the boy’s father and proceeds to teach the boy Aikido (he is, of course, a Japanese advance agent and spy); tropical gardens and jungles, misty hillsides, exotic food and culture, strange Oriental faiths and philosophies; the Straits of Malacca; the shades of Conrad and Maugham and Theroux. It should be a recipe for dynamite.

Instead we get a damp squib. And no wonder, because Mr Tan is as weepy as a girl. He’s great on evoking the more conventionally exotic elements of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic culture, a whiz at describing old Chinese temples and picturesque Penang houses, excels at creating pretty little Merchant-Ivory images (handsome English boy going off to war in his sailor suit and the family Rolls, that kind of thing), but when he gets on to dialogue and character he’s a drip.

His drippiness is somewhat restrained in the first few chapters. His descriptions of the boy and his sensei at practice, and the martial-arts content in general, are workmanlike and quite vivid; apparently Mr Tan is some kind of Aikido master himself. But after a while his intially strong and elegant writing degenerates into something that resembles airline-magazine travelogue crossed with chick-lit, and there it stays. His hero is a sentimental young bore, much given to introspection of a rather pathetic sort, and forever melting with love for his father, his late mother, his grandfather, his siblings and above all for his sensei, for whom he seems to nurse a strong but unconscious homosexual crush (one which seems to be reciprocated, though as at page 278, where I stopped reading, all they’d done was beat each other up and then get misty at each other). It isn’t at all clear that Mr Tan intends us to take his hero as gay, though since the story is about a youth on the verge of manhood and there are lots of personable men around him but no female interest in his life whatsoever, one is entitled draw one’s own conclusons.

It’s a pity the author couldn’t have been a little braver about this; it would have helped the book a lot. Perhaps there’s a revelation at the end — big deal, if so. What really makes The Gift of Rain a drag is that Mr Tan doesn’t know how to tell a story, and his writing slowly collapses into a flabby, cliché-strewn mess.

Just before I gave up reading, the author had attempted a grand set-piece: a party thrown by the hero’s father, who is one of the biggest English tycoons in Malaya, and to which all the active characters in the story so far are invited, along with most of the rest of Penang society. This is where the author’s powers of description, so puissant when it comes to delineating marble fountains and places of worship with snakes in the rafters, should have been working overtime; instead, the party is given short shrift, turned into a hunt by our doughty heroes for a Man with a Bomb, who turns out, in true Boy’s Own Paper style, to be a cowardly Indian Communist with greasy hair whom everyone happily beats up, to the evident approval of the author. At one point he does give us a brief look at the other guests diverting themselves (in the absence of their saboteur-hunting hosts) with a drunken brawl, which is broken up by the daughter of the house firing a gun into the air – at which the various diplomats, tycoons, newspaper editors and other pillars of society stop hitting each other and go home.

I thought the real action (the Japanese invasion) would start after that — I was already more than halfway through the book — but instead the author took me strolling down Armenian Street to show me at yet another exquisite Penang house. I left him and his grandfather at the gate, and tiptoed away to write this review.

Apparently this was longlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize. Must have been a bloody long list.

15 October 2015

A Travesty

The Science Fiction Handbook
Edited by Nick Hubble & Aris Mousoutzanis

This book is a travesty, an act of politically-correct academic deceit.

Published by Bloomsbury as part of its Literature & Culture Handbooks series, it is intended as a textbook for use by people following ‘science fiction studies’ courses at university level. However, it completely misrepresents the history, ethos and spirit of science fiction.

The history and content of SF makes it a largely male literature. Its conventional subject matter — new technology, space exploration, electronic brains, future societies — was of the kind that attracts more male than female interest. SF began as, and largely continues to be, a thoroughly male-dominated field, though with increasing female participation since the late Sixties. To this day, most science-fiction writers (including most of the best ones) and most science-fiction readers are male.

Maybe this is unfair. Maybe science fiction would be much better if it were written by women as often and as successfully as men, or was read by as many women as men. I don't know and, for the purposes of this review, I don't care.

What I care about is that a book claiming to provide ‘a comprehensive guide to the genre and how to study it for students new to the field’ (I'm quoting the publisher's introduction on the back cover) should provide an accurate and representative survey of the field. This The Science Fiction Handbook conspicuously fails to do, because its editors have fallen down before the baleful academic idol of Political Correctness and done obeisance.

On Page 31, they offer a list of 21 'major science fiction authors', whose works are discussed later in the book. Eight of them, or nearly two-fifths of the number, are women. Among them are 
  • Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing, two conventional literary authors who have dabbled in science-fiction tropes (future societies, alien visitations) without actually doing justice either to science (Lessing, in particular, was a scientific illiterate) or the conventions of the genre;
  • Naomi Mitchison, the author of one great SF novel, Memoirs of A Spacewoman, but far better known as an author of general fiction, with over 70 books in various genres and styles to her credit; 
  • Gwynneth Jones, best known as a fantasy writer; 
  • Octavia E. Butler, a moderately successful SF writer who happens to be not only female, but black.

None of them would make most readers' lists of 21 great SF writers. They have been chosen only in order to flesh out the feminine side of the list. Because female representation at the top table of SF is so scanty, the editors chose to pick this bunch of also-rans over male authors who were true giants in the field.

Here are some of the authors the book leaves out.:

– Isaac Asimov
– Greg Bear
– Orson Scott Card
– Arthur C. Clarke
– Frank Herbert
– Larry Niven
– Frederik Pohl
– Gene Wolfe

I could go on in that vein for several pages, but you get the idea.

You can see what's happening here: authors of hard, ie technical SF and authors whose politics don't conform to the prevailing left-wing orthodoxy of nonscientific academia have been discriminated against. There is also an excess of British representation, doubtless because the editors are British academics.

Students unfamiliar with SF (the stated target audience) will receive a completely distorted idea of the field from this book. I need not say that the feminist/left-wing/arts over science bias continues throughout; every page drips with it. As a lifelong SF aficionado, I call it a travesty.

The editors, Nick Hubble and Aris Moustoutzanis, have Ph.D's and all, but they are mountebanks and deceivers nonetheless. Spurn them.

If you want to read a good book about science fiction, I recommend Brian W. Aldiss's Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction.

20 September 2015

Kiss It Goodbye

Many Roads through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature

Collected and edited by Shyam Selvadurai

Three languages are spoken in contemporary Sri Lanka, and as far as I know this is the first serious attempt ever made to present an anthology of modern writing in all of them. Since few people can read with equal facility in English, Sinhala and Tamil, the anthologist has fixed on one language for his book and presented his chosen examples from the other two in translation. The language he has chosen is English, which is the most sensible choice as it is the anthologist’s own. Not that he is unfamiliar with the other two, since his father is Tamil and his mother Sinhalese; but they, like him, are members of the tiny post-colonial elite that dominated social, political and cultural life in my country until a generation or so ago, and whose preferred language is English.
       It is a pity that a choice had to be made, though, because when you present works in translation side by side with works in their original tongue, the former are likely to suffer by comparison. In this collection, there is a perceptible difference in quality and effect between the best of the selected English works and the best (as I judge them) of those translated from the other two languages.
       This is not due merely to shortcomings in translation. In much of the Sinhala and Tamil prose collected here, the authors’ earnest efforts to internalize and successfully deploy the modes of a foreign, relatively unfamiliar art form are at times all too apparent. To put it bluntly, these stories and poems appear to be the work of apprentice writers who have not quite mastered their craft.

Lost in translation?
The struggle is exemplified in the selected excerpt from Uprooted, Lakshmi de Silva’s translation of Martin Wickramasinghe’s seminal Sinhala novel, Gamperaliya. Wickramasinghe’s novel deals with the difficulties faced by Sinhalese villagers – more correctly, members of the rural Sinhalese bourgeoisie – whose relationships to their roots, and hence to one another, are being altered by modernity and citification. It’s meant to be compelling psychosocial drama, but I’m sorry to say it plods. The ‘action’ consists mainly of a series of conversations between people who can’t really express themselves to one another due to social taboos and their own confusion. Their oblique, laconic exchanges are filled with things unsaid – which, outside the quotation marks, the author tells us about in far too much detail.
       This, according to most Western notions, is bad writing: showing too little, telling too much. It miniaturizes the work, turning it into a puppet-theatre overshadowed by the looming shape of the string-pulling author. I suppose the model here was Dostoevsky, and particularly The Brothers Karamazov, but the result reads more like some Soviet propaganda-novel in which Revolutionary ideals and Party policies are turned into simplistic, allegorical tales suitable for semiliterate readers.
       If that comparison seems rude to you, consider this one: Gamperaliya, in this translation at least, reminded me of one of those doleful old Sinhala movies in which the characters spend most of the time staring glumly into space, their silence broken by an occasional despairing expostulation, while ominous music plays in the background, slightly out of tune. Gamperaliya antedates those movies and was widely imitated, so it is hard to avoid the suspicion that they are examples of its influence.
       Admittedly it is unfair to apply, to a novel like Gamperaliya, the same criteria one would use to judge a literary novel published in Japanese, French, Russian or English. These are languages in which novels have been written for centuries. Wickramasinghe was the first really successful Sinhala novelist, the first to produce a solid body of work and the first, perhaps, whose works aspired to the condition of literature. But to compare him with Dostoevsky as I have just done is unkind; and to judge him in relation to some of his literary contemporaries, such as Joyce or Nabokov, would be downright cruel. This pioneer of the Sinhala novel was still working through the basic techniques of fiction-writing at the time Gamperaliya was published. He had no local models to help him; as Mr Selvadurai would say, he was finding his own road through Paradise. No shame in that.

Going through Hell
There are a total of sixty items in this anthology and I certainly do not propose to review them all. In critical terms, what applies to Gamperaliya, the most distinguished work appearing here, applies to all the other translations from Sinhala and Tamil. Each has its aesthetic merits and shortcomings, but these are nearly always overshadowed by problems of a technical kind, translation itself being only the most common. It is hard to judge them as art because of this.
        Still, ‘Among the Hills’, A.M.S Ramiah’s insightful short story about a tea plantation worker, comes through as distressingly authentic – a glimpse into a world of people so humble and hopeless that even self-respect is a luxury beyond their means. Depressing authenticity is also the hallmark of Liyanage Amarakeerthi’s ‘The Hour When the Moon Weeps’, a story in which all the violence and viciousness of the 1980s seems to be distilled. But the narrative is confused and fragmented, the effect dissipates and all is lost.
       The poetry is better, I suppose; it’s hard to tell, because poetry suffers translation even less willingly than prose. You can judge the imagery, perhaps. There are some striking images to be found here, but as I found it impossible to respond to these works as poetry, I will say nothing about them except that I liked one, The Water Buffalo by Siri Gunasinghe, for its brutal interrogation-room humour.
       Whether poetry or prose, most of the Sinhala and Tamil works in this anthology deal with horrible things: war, violence, rape, torture and murder. Since most of them were written during a period when the country seemed bent on tearing itself to bits – that is to say, between 1956 and 2009 – this comes as no surprise. People write what they know, and what the people of Sri Lanka have mostly known for half a century are political, ethnic and religious violence, youth revolt, civil war, terrorism by the State and its opponents, and a parade of corrupt, inept rulers. It’s all here. By the time one has turned the last page on the twelfth or so account of abduction, rape, torture or death, one has had more than enough. Yet the hits – so to speak – just keep on coming. The people in these stories and poems aren’t finding ‘many roads through Paradise’; they’re going through Hell.

War, sex and cricket
What a relief, then, to find that the English selections are far more varied in subject-matter and tone, as well as somewhat higher in average quality. Of course, there’s still plenty of war-violence and war-woe around: Ayathurai Santhan describes the plight of Tamil refugees tossed back and forth like shuttlecocks between the LTTE and the Indian Peacekeeping Force, Amina Hussein’s ‘Guava Green and Mango Ripe’ captures a Colombo social worker’s numbed incomprehension as she travels through the blasted landscape of a former war zone, and even that gentlest of writers, Romesh Gunesekera, manages to come up with a story in which civil conflict and violence, from a distance, ruin a painstakingly-built refuge and spoil a friendship. Allusive and elegiacally written in the author’s characteristic style, the subtlety of ‘A House in the Country’ is somewhat lost amid the cries of agony and wails of grief rising from its companion pieces. That, sadly, seems to be the fate to which the self-effacing Mr Gunesekera is ever destined.
       Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. The joyous excerpt from Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree is far and away the best thing in this anthology. Here, for once, is an author in full control of his craft – Mr Muller’s prose is highly spiced but beautifully judged, and the polymorphous sex-obsession of his characters is truer to life than most of his readers will admit.
       I wish I could say that the extract from Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman gave me as much pleasure, but I’m afraid it didn’t. I regard Chinaman – a story about cricket and about Sri Lanka – as the first or perhaps the second English novel of real literary merit ever to have been written by a Sri Lankan who actually lives here, but the chosen excerpt is more or a less a prologue and doesn’t give the full flavour of the book. Which I encourage you to buy and read.
       Speaking of residence and non-residence, Mr Selvadurai has chosen to include a few authors, like Michael Ondaatje and Michelle de Kretser, who don’t live here and have never had novels published in Sri Lanka. Mr Ondaatje is, of course, world-famous. The piece by him here, an episode from The Cat’s Table, is sui generisMs de Kretser is represented by a chapter or so from her novel The Hamilton Case, which is just what you might expect – a neat, well-researched assemblage of conventional tropes. What was it about? I forget. Why are these people even in this book? They’re not Sri Lankan writers, they’re established international authors with Sri Lankan connexions, who made their reputations abroad before they were ever heard of by the reading public here.
       Far better than either of these efforts was ‘The Rag’ by Nihal de Silva. This ‘toxic portrait of class rage turned outward and inward’, as Mr Selvadurai introduces it, describes the ordeal that Sri Lankan university freshmen are subjected to by senior students during their induction period. It is no good-humoured rag they endure but a Cultural Revolution-style brainwashing in which both physical and psychological violence are employed to break the freshers’ confidence and resistance before re-educating them in the narrative of race and class oppression that informs the darker side of Sinhalese nationalism. De Silva’s story is true to life, compelling and at times revolting. It is also very well told, and it got under my skin.
       Two other prose works, both short stories, are worth a mention: ‘No State, No Dog’ by C. Velupillai describes the repatriation of a Tamil plantation worker to India (and the sad fate of his dog), while ‘The Mission’ by S.D.V. Perera is a story of Christian duty done amid the violence of war that encourages us believe that even when we are at our worst, our humanity need not desert us.
       Moving on to the English poetry in the anthology, we find the violence and woe once more in ample supply: trauma is trilingual. Ashley Halpe and Yasmine Gooneratne give it to us in high intellectual style, Vivimarie Vanderpoorten rubs it in while feigning dispassion and Kamala Wijeratne should have read a few (hundred) more poems before setting herself to write one. But there are also works by Jean Arasanayagam and Regi Siriwardene that say insightful, clever things about our colonial inheritance, and one poem of genuinely remarkable quality, At What Dark Point by Anne Ranasinghe. Ms Ranasinghe is an established poetess, and only Sri Lankan by marriage; she brings her own darkness, the long shadow of the Holocaust, along with her.

What’s missing?
Anyone who reads Sri Lankan literature will have their own candidates for an anthology of this kind, so make up your own list. 
       I haven’t really thought about my own. I suppose I would have liked to see a bit of Mr Selvadurai’s own work in the book, but I applaud his modesty in not putting any in. The one really grievous lacuna is the hijack scene from David Blacker’s action novel A Cause Untrue. That should definitely have been in. Mr Blacker may not pretend to high art, but the way he builds and paces the tension in this scene could teach many more self-consciously literary writers a thing or two about technique.

A confession before I close. Although this is by some distance the longest book review I have ever written, I did not actually read the whole of Many Roads through Paradise. There were several pieces I could not finish because they were so depressing or unpleasant I could not bear to go on. A few I cast aside because they weren’t worth my while. To Shyam Selvadurai’s credit, there were relatively few of the latter: out of the thin unpromising gruel of modern Sri Lankan writing, he has managed to pick out the choicer morsels. They are not on the whole very tasty but that is not his fault, unless you think he should have chosen another country to anthologize.
       The same goes, I suppose, for the violence and woe. An anthologist must work with what is available. The sad truth is that, despite its balmy climate, heart-lifting beauty and cultural diversity, modern Sri Lanka is anything but a paradise. Things have got better since the war ended and the man who won it and then lost himself the peace was voted out of office, but for two whole generations this was, to be frank, a bloody miserable country to be a native of, and dangerous to boot. 
       Such seems to be the fate of so many of the world’s loveliest places. The history and literature of modern Sri Lanka amply bear out that old, cynical lyric from 'The Last Resort’: call someplace Paradise, kiss it goodbye.

21 June 2015

Mostly Bunk

An Intimate History of Humanity
by Theodore Zeldin

I finished this book at the third try; on my first two attempts, made some years ago, I didn't even get to page 50. And though I finished it this time, I really, really disliked it.

Prof. Zeldin, like many European intellectuals, appears to have been greatly influenced by Karl Marx at some point in his youth. The influence shows, not so much in his political and economic views, as in his prose. Like Marx, he is fond of giant intuitive leaps, dialectical arguments and dogmatic statements couched as memorable aphorisms. My own educational background is Anglicized, literary and scientific, which puts me out of sympathy with this approach from the outset. Aware of this — and feeling the need to broaden my mind — I bit back my own critical responses to Zeldin’s writing and went at his book with as little prejudice and Anglo-Saxon cultural snobbery as was possible for me. It was not a successful experiment.

This book is mistitled. In no way is it a history of humanity, intimate or otherwise. It consists of a series of reports and reflections on the author’s conversations with dozens of Frenchwomen whom he has interviewed. Their occupations range from daily maid through counter clerk and executive trainer to mathematician and magazine editor. These women describe their lives and, particularly, their strategies for coping with life. Zeldin then discusses their strategies dialectically, invoking various cultures and historical epochs in which he believes similar solutions were tried, more or less successfully. This part — the actual history — is exhaustively referenced and doubtless accurate, but sketchily told, selective and not very insightful in terms of historical process.

Towards the end of the book, Zeldin attempts to sum up what conclusions he has reached from his conversations with these women, and comes up with what he calls six strategies humans beings use to get through life. They are obedience, negotiation, self-sufficient withdrawal from the world, the quest to make sense of things by increasing one's own knowledge, talkative self-revelation and applied creativity. I think we are supposed to believe this rather idiosyncratic classification contains or underpins all the other strategies any halfway intelligent person could identify, such as religious mania, moneygrubbing or alcoholism, but the author fails to demonstrate this satisfactorily.

Ultimately, Zeldin’s thesis is that, while the various ways in which humans have coped with life to date have all been more or less unsastisfactory, better ways are possible through more widespread and meaningful communication, and that, ultimately, this may bring about a step change in human nature, which he regards as mutable and capable of improvement. Here my attempt to be broadminded hit the wall. All the scientific, literary and historical evidence we have indicates to us that human nature is not malleable.

Zeldin never looks this unfortunate fact in the face. At one point the obstinacy of his refusal is so egregious it amounts to stupidity. This is when, in the course of (rightly) rejecting all prescriptive definitions of the ideal family, he states that ‘the family is the oldest of all human insititutions because it is the most flexible.’ This is very probably true, but it begs the question of what a family is — surely this Protean institution must have some traits that are common to all its numerous guises, and by which it can be defined? Worse yet, it begs the question of why we have families in the first place. Is the answer so obvious it need not be stated?

I don’t think so. And I think Zeldin’s avoidance of the issue identifies the great flaw in this ‘intellectually dazzling view of our past and future’, as Time magazine apparently regards it. In fact, culture is based on nature: human institutions are merely animal institutions, greatly elaborated and extended. Culture — and that includes the family as much as any other human institution — is the product of instinct. It is to biology, particularly evolutionary biology, that we must look for truthful answers to the great questions that have troubled social scientists, theologians and philosophers for thousands of years. That, at any rate, is my view, and though I gave it my best shot, An Intimate History of Humanity failed to shake it, or provide anything like a credible alternate perspective.

On the positive side, Zeldin writes well, and some of his aphorisms are superbly quotable. Unfortunately, not all of them stand up to close scrutiny. But this is a disposable book; unless you’re of a mind with the author, you will lose nothing by neglecting to read it.

15 May 2015

Smoke on the Water

River of Smoke

By Amitav Ghosh

I’ve been discontented with some of Mr Ghosh's recent offerings. The Glass Palace seemed to me overly discursive, meandering and ultimately without much point, since the story of origins he was tracing was of interest principally to him, and he failed to make it interesting to me. The Hungry Tide, with its preachy ethno-political subtext and its implausibly presented romance between an American marine biologist and a Bengali fisherman, almost put me off him for life.

It’s a good thing it didn’t, quite, because this sequel to Sea of Poppies – which was a corker, by the way, a true five-star job, cliffhanger ending and all – kept me reading, and interested, till the end, even though it was a disappointment on a number of levels.

Let’s get this out of the way first: the minimum you expect of a sequel is that it continues the stories of the characters who interested you in the first book. Well, you don’t get that here. There’s a long first chapter that tells you, inter alia, that Deeti, the escapee from suttee in Sea of Poppies, made it alive to Mauritius and found work there as an indentured labourer, and has managed to raise a large family, now in its third generation, over which she rules as a typical Indian matriarch. We are informed from time to time that Zachary Reid, the sexy young strapper from SoP, is in gaol in Calcutta or some such awaiting trial for mutiny.

But the stories we really end up following are those of other characters. One, a bit player from the earlier book, Neel the aristocratic forger, now a opium trader’s secretary or munshi, becomes an important viewpoint character as he finds a new life in Guangzhou, then known to foreigners as Canton. We also see the city and the events that unfolded there through the eyes of two entirely new characters, Neel’s boss, a Parsi opium trader, and a young Anglo-Indian painter who has just begun living and working in the city and is joyously discovering the pleasures it has to offer. This last character’s story is told in letters to another ex-SoP minor player, who spends nearly the entire novel tucked away from the action, her only purpose in the author’s scheme being to serve as the recipient for those letters (and we never even get to glimpse her reading them!)

From the foregoing, you will deduce that the author has now taken us across the water to the other terminus of the opium trade: China. And Ghosh has chosen a brilliantly fertile setting for his fiction: Guangzhou just before the first opium war. An incredible, mind-buggeringly diverse, frenetic and contradictory place, where alien cultures meet each other in profitable but nerve-racking mutual incomprehension. And he has done his research well, perhaps too well; the tide of information is as wide and unstoppable as the Pearl River, and sometimes you struggle just to take it all in. Also, I wish he wouldn’t use so many foreign words without explaining what they mean. But there is no doubt that the picture he paints is as true to life as he knows how to make it. Most of the cast of the novel consists of real, historical personages.

All this is so much to the good; but after the grand climax, which, if you know the relevant history, is entirely predictable, the novel seems to peter out as the various characters pick themselves up and move on to the next phases of their divers careers. Another volume is plainly in the works. Whether it will justify the investment of our time, and all the putting-up we have to do with the author’s rather tortuous approach to storytelling, who knows? This one was a good read all right, but it gave me a touch of indigestion afterwards.

16 April 2015

Lies, Damned Lies and Advertising Propositions

It’s Not How Good You Are, 
It’s How Good You Want to Be
by Paul Arden

This, at first glance, is a rather mysterious book. From its title, you might think it was a motivational tract for athletes or performing artists, or possibly a training manual for aspirants to sainthood. It claims to be ‘the world’s best-selling book’, yet this is an obvious lie. Most mysterious of all, it is published by Phaidon, a house specializing in pricey coffee-table picture-books, yet it is a paperback, no larger than the average newsstand bestseller, and the few pictures it contains are aesthetically unremarkable. How did the world’s most pretentious publisher, which advertises itself as the ‘Home of the Visual Arts’, ever come to publish this strange little trifle?

The mystery is solved by looking up the author’s name. You may never have heard of Paul Arden, but if you are old enough, you are probably familiar with some of his work, which appeared in the media all around the world during the 1980s. Arden was a legendarily successful advertising man, a name to conjure with in London media circles during the Thatcher era. 

Readers knowledgeable about the dark arts of advertising will remember the 1980s as an unusually creative period, a time when London was the pulsing centre of the ad world, Madison Avenue took second place, and the shackles of twenty-first-century consumer capitalism were forged in a furnace fired by champagne, single-malt whisky and cocaine. The hottest London shop in those days was Saatchi & Saatchi, and that is where Arden made his reputation between 1977 and 1992. According to one source, he was ‘the ringmaster behind the creative circus that saw British Airways become the world’s favourite airline, the Independent become the new intelligentsia’s favourite newspaper, Margaret Thatcher the nation’s favourite leader and Silk Cut their favourite fag.’ By some lights, then, Arden has a great deal to answer for; but since he died in 2008, we can leave his punishment in the hands of higher authority. What of It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be?

Well, it certainly isn’t the world’s best-selling book. It’s the world’s best-selling book by Paul Arden, who as far as I was able to find out has written only two others. In other words, it is a typical advertiser’s claim: literally true, but failing to deliver any of the quality or value you have a right to expect from it. Once you’ve deciphered its real meaning, you have only yourself to blame if you go on to open the book and read what’s inside. You have been given fair warning that the contents are morally revolting. They are also, for the best part, of no practical use whatsoever.

Arden appears to have thought that creativity is valuable in its own right – a debatable proposition to say the least. He also treats novelty as equivalent to creativity. This was the cardinal error to which British advertising of his period was prone. Finally, he appears to have believed that creativity consists of doing the opposite of what is expected. And that, for the most part, is what his advice in this book boils down to. Chapter titles include the following: ‘It’s wrong to be right.’ ‘It’s right to be wrong.’ ‘When it can’t be done, do it.’ ‘Do not seek praise, seek criticism.’ Reading the actual ‘chapters’ that appear under these attention-grabbing headlines disappoints in exactly the same way that an over-touted product or service disappoints; they bear out their titles in a literal way, but the advice they contain is the same tired, warmed-over stuff served up at industry ‘creative workshops’ all over the world. 

Some of the suggestions – compose your ad from the weakest point, sell your ideas using rough scribbles, not finished layouts, share your ideas (and the credit for them) with others, don’t be afraid of looking silly or making mistakes – are valid. They will also be well known to most of his readers, thanks to those creative workshops, though few will be brave enough to act on them. Other suggestions appear less valuable, or even downright bizarre – ‘if you get stuck, draw with a different pen’ or ‘always schedule new business pitches for Tuesdays.’ Every creative person has his or her own set of muse-invoking rituals; Mr Arden appears to have thought that his were universally applicable. Such is the arrogance bred by great success.

I have already written more than I want to about this very bad book, but unfortunately there is one more point to be addressed before I stop. According to the introduction on the jacket flap (yes, it’s so pretentious it has a jacket flap, even though it is a jacketless paperback), ‘this book uses the creative processes of good advertising as a metaphor for business practice.’ In other words, it’s more than a how-to book for agency creative staff: it’s a management manual.

Well, hell no, it isn’t. Advertising is a very small part of entrepreneurship, and what works to sell products and services via the mass media doesn't necessarily work so well online, in the executive suite or on the factory floor. Any manager who tried to run his business or his department along the lines proposed by Arden – constantly chopping and changing how things are done, giving people something new and unexpected to cope with every day, recklessly ignoring the possibilities of failure or error – would soon be ruined, and probably end up in gaol or a psychiatric ward into the bargain. In fact, many ad agencies, most notably the briefly celebrated American shop Chiat/Day, have gone bust doing precisely this.

Because, you see, Paul Arden was deeply, fundamentally, pathetically wrong. However much you may want it to be about how good you want to be, in the end it really is about how good you are. People don’t want to face this fact, but there it is. It just so happens that talent and capability are much rarer than ambition. And if you have no talent, what you create will always be malformed and worthless.

Paul Arden and his ilk are responsible for much of what is cheap, vulgar, valueless and dishonest about today’s world, and in particular with media-driven consumer capitalism. They were a despicable crew, and we are not rid of them yet. His colleagues Maurice Saatchi, Tim Bell and Martin Sorrell now sit in the British House of Lords, while his former boss was for some years the most important tastemaker in the rarefied world of the fine arts. Remember the HIV-positive blood sculpture that melted in Nigella Lawson’s freezer? That is what the arts came to under the patronage of Charles Saatchi. If these people did not make the world we live in today, they are at least responsible for many of the nastier aspects of it. It is high time we were rid of them and their cynical, moneygrubbing values.

The only piece of advice in Paul Arden’s book that struck me as at all valuable and original is on p.88. Here it is, in a sentence: ‘get out of advertising.’ I took that advice ten years ago, and my life has been a great deal happier and more fulfilling ever since. If you really have any creative talent in you and wish to preserve it, do likewise.