Monday, April 13, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ISIS – THE STATE OF TERROR” by Jessica Stern and J.M.Berger (Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99)
Is it ISIS, ISIL or simply IS? Early in the piece, the authors of this book explain that IS (Islamic State) is the designation they prefer, but many Western governments choose not to use this term as it implies that these radical Sunni jihadists have already achieved their aim of creating an autonomous state. ISIL is the term that the US government prefers (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and that President Obama often uses in his speeches. However Western journalists prefer ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), which is now the best-known designation. So, willy-nilly, the authors opt for ISIS.
What sort of book is this book? Of course it’s the higher journalism, and like all journalism (as the authors openly acknowledge) it is provisional and perishable. Being published this year, it is up-to-date enough to mention the fall-out from the Charlie Hebdo murders. But it is an investigation into an ongoing situation that is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Doubtless that situation will look very different, and require a very different sort of book, in two or three years’ time.
It is also a book aimed principally at non-Muslim infidels like you and me. The text is preceded by a twelve-page glossary of Muslim terms and a timeline of recent relevant historical events. After the 256 pages of text, but before the 25 pages of index and the 84 pages of notes and the 5 pages of acknowledgements in which Jessica Stern and J.M.Berger separately thank their sources, there are 44 pages of Appendix, written by a doctoral student in religious studies, on the core beliefs of Islam and its various factions.
Finally I have to note that it is not boots-on-the-ground journalism. Jessica Stern is a lecturer on terrorism at Harvard. J.M.Berger is a fellow of the Brookings Institution and contributor to Foreign Policy magazine. Their report has been researched through secondary sources, interviews, declassified information and (as parts of the text make very clear) very close gleaning of what is – or has been – available on the Internet. Stern and Berger view the situation from a distance, but with a clear sense of the real danger ISIS entails.
ISIS – The State of Terror opens with the horror of televised ISIS executions of hostages and prisoners, who are dressed provocatively in orange, consciously echoing the garb of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. ISIS revels in publicising such public violence, as a sign of its resolve and its refusal to compromise, but also as a means of both provoking and intimidating the West. Immediately the authors describe the shocked Western reaction where:
“In corner stores and restaurants, on television and radio broadcasts, over dinner tables and on social media, people began to ask: Why can’t the most powerful nations on earth stop these medieval-minded killers? The question soon transformed into an anger not seen since the days after the 11 September 2001 attacks.” (p.5)
Rather than being a parade of such horrors, however, the book becomes an enquiry into how ISIS operates, to whom it appeals, what its aims are and what the appropriate response of the West should be. In their account, the group that eventually became ISIS was founded by Ahmad Fadhil Nazzal al Kalaylah, whom they characterise as “a Jordanian thug turned terrorist”. He adopted the name Abu Mursala al Zarqawi. As a Sunni Muslim, he was motivated by the American occupation of Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship had been supported by Iraq’s minority Sunni Muslims. They were the backbone of his Ba’athist Party. Under the US occupation, however, over 100,000 Sunnis were dismissed from their government positions, and Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority waged a campaign against Sunnis. Sunnis were a great recruiting ground for a jihadist movement that opposed both the new Iraqi government and the American occupation. Enter Abu Mursala al Zarqawi to recruit them. He was killed in 2010 and succeeded as the head of the new movement by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi who “began on the path of jihad” during the US-led invasion.
As the authors note, ISIS got another major boost in recruits when it was able to infiltrate and take over groups fighting against Assad’s dictatorship in the ongoing Syrian civil war. One could say that the initial Western delusions about an “Arab spring” finally died in this civil war. Those who oppose dictatorships are not necessarily seeking to replace them with anything resembling democracies. ISIS was also able to access huge funding for propaganda once it captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and looted the wealth of its banks. It is now probably the best-funded terrorist organization in the world.
At first ISIS was affiliated to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, but there were tensions between the two groups. Basically al Qaeda, backed mainly by wealthy Saudi Arabians, was concerned to wage war on foreign infidels. They were happy to have ISIS as their followers but were very concerned that ISIS was as eager to pursue Shi’ite Muslims as infidels. To al Qaeda, ISIS seemed a bit of a rabble and, much as it may surprise non-Muslim Westerners, al Qaeda had qualms about Muslims killing other Muslims, or attempting to impose strict Sharia law too soon on converts to Islam. The authors of ISIS – The State of Terror quote an intercepted caution sent by one al Qaeda cell to another: “AQAP … advised AQIM to refrain from immediately instituting the jihadists’ harsh interpretation of Islamic law. ‘you can’t beat people for drinking alcohol when they don’t even know the basics of how to pray,’ one letter stated.” (pp.114-115)
There were broader issues on which ISIS eventually broke with al Qaeda, refused to see it as its superior, and embarked on its own course.
Al Qaeda saw itself as a “vanguard” group, carrying out acts of terror against the West on the assumption that this would lead to Western retaliation, which in turn would lead to a massive popular Muslim uprising. This was the concept of a “leaderless” Muslim revolution, where al Qaeda was simply lighting the populist spark.
ISIS had, and has, no such strategic approach. Its aim is quite simply the set up a specific territorial area as the base from which a new unified and international caliphate will spread. ISIS has no faith in a spontaneous Muslim popular uprising. Within this new caliphate, the people will be ruled strictly by the caliphate’s hierarchy. The propaganda presented to potential recruits is that the caliphate (proclaimed by ISIS in June 2014) is already here and is building and has a place for all classes of (strictly Sunni Muslim) society. The caliph will, of course, claim headship of the whole Muslim world. To make a crude analogy (mine – not the authors’), al Qaeda is like Trotskyists aiming for permanent international revolution. ISIS is like Stalinists building “socialism in one country”. The authors most concisely identify the difference between al Qaeda and ISIS thus:
“In the end, al Qaeda’s failure was the failure of all vanguard movements – an assumption that the masses, once awakened, will not require close supervision, specific guidance, and a vision that extends beyond fighting. Al Qaeda’s vision is – often explicitly – nihilistic. ISIS, for all its barbarity, is both more pragmatic and more utopian. Hand in hand with its tremendous capacity for destruction, it also seeks to build. Most vanguard extremist movements paradoxically believe that ordinary people are afflicted with deep ignorance, yet such movements also expect that once their eyes have been opened, the masses will instinctively know what to do next. ISIS does not take the masses for granted; its chain of influence extends beyond the elite, beyond its strategists and loyal fighting force, out into the world. Its propaganda is not simply a call to arms, it is also a call for non-combatants, men and women alike, to build a nation-state alongside the warriors with a role for engineers, doctors, filmmakers, sysadmins, and even traffic cops.” (pp.73-74)
Surprisingly, a very large part of this book is not taken up with further analysis of how the ISIS “state” runs, though atrocities, reported by defecting jihadists, are covered. What concerns the authors more is how ISIS is able to recruit, using social media, the Internet and television. Al Qaeda pioneered this, but did not quite get the electronic approach right:
“The terrorist group [al Qaeda] had generally kept up with the technology of the day, but in the realm of social media, it was slightly slower to adopt the latest trends. The centre of gravity for jihadist extremists online had settled onto password-protected message boards, highly structured discussion forums that were carefully moderated by activists who were members of al Qaeda, or very closely aligned with such.” (p.65)
In contrast, ISIS rapidly adopted “a feedback-loop model” for disseminating their propaganda on the ‘net, with as many accounts as possible fully open to comment by anyone who wished to look at them. The result was tens of millions of ISIS-affiliated tweets on Twitter and images shared on Facebook and a huge audience of potential recruits. As Stern and Berger tell it, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter were very slow to close down ISIS-related accounts, and some Western security services advised against closing them down because, they argued, such accounts provided intelligence information and helped our official Watchers to keep track of potential jihadists. To which the authors reply tartly
“… allowing child pornographers to operate on line without impediment would undoubtedly yield tremendous intelligence about child pornographers. Yet no-one ever argues this is a reasonable trade-off.” (p.141)
For Stern and Berger, ISIS’s public executions and dissemination of atrocity images are meant to serve a twofold purpose. The first is to warn what awaits anyone who resists (a bit like the old German military doctrine of Schrecklichkeit). The second is to inure ISIS followers and subjects to the murder, rape and torture they themselves might be required to commit:
“While ISIS may not articulate its reasons in this manner, we believe it is deliberately engaged in a process of blunting empathy, attracting individuals already inclined towards violence, frightening victims into compliance, and projecting this activity out to the wider world. The long-term effects of this calculated brutality are likely to be severe, with higher rates of various forms of PTSD, increased rates of secondary psychopathy, and, sadly, more violence.” (p.218)
What I find deficient in this book is a long term explanation of why jihadists in general (of which ISIS is the latest and, apparently, most virulent example) have come out of longer historical conditions. Yes, there is an account of how ISIS arose in reaction to the US-led war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; but the book scarcely glances at the longer history of Western exploitation of what we call loosely “the Middle East”.
For all that, ISIS – The State of Terror does not function as a drumbeater for Western intervention. By and large, the authors are critical of US foreign policy up to this point; and they speak negatively of earlier interventions, as when they declare:
“Armed with irrational exuberance and a handful of dubious pretexts for war, the United States and its allies invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. The invasion had been justified by exaggerated claims that Iraq possessed or was close to possessing weapons of mass destruction, and by the false claim that Saddam Hussein was allied with al Qaeda. While Iraq had a long history of sponsoring terrorist groups, al Qaeda was not one of them.” (p.17)
They note the huge wasted effort, and wasted money, spent trying to build up credible post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi armed forces:
“The United States had invested $25 billion in training and equipping the Iraqi army over the course of eight years. That investment evaporated in the blink of an eye as Iraqi soldiers turned tail and fled in the face of ISIS’s assaults on Mosul.” (p.45)
The reasons given for the 2003 invasion are refuted and the results criticised:
“Terror can make us strike back at the wrong enemy, for the wrong reasons, or both (as was the case with the 2003 invasion of Iraq). We want to wage war, not just on terrorism, but also on terror, to banish the feeling of being unjustly attacked or unable to protect the blameless. We want to wage war on evil. Sometimes the effect of our reaction is precisely what we aimed to thwart – more terrorists and more attacks, spread more broadly around the world. While some politicians wanted to see Iraq during the allied invasion as a roach motel, we see it more like a hornets’ nest – with allied bombs and bullets spreading the hornets ever further, throughout the region and beyond.” (pp.199-200)
There are also these chilling, but necessary, words:
“The only thing worse than a brutal dictator is no state at all. The rise of ISIS is, to some extent, the unintended consequence of Western intervention in Iraq. Coalition forces removed a brutal dictator from power, but they also broke the Iraqi state. The West lacked the patience, the will, and the wisdom to build a new, inclusive one. What remained were ruins.” (pp. 237-238)
The authors also quote (on pp. 239-240) the disillusioned words of General Daniel P. Bolger (ret.), a senior commander in Iraq, on how little intervention in Iraq achieved and how foolish intervention was in the first place. I can imagine his words appearing in many an anti-war pamphlet should we once again be asked to furnish boots-on-the-ground in Iraq.
So what, finally, is the authors’ view on how the powerful part of the West should respond to ISIS? They suggests a rigorous surveillance of all social and electronic media, a blocking of all ISIS propaganda in any format, a complete ban on travel to ISIS-controlled areas, prosecution of anyone recruiting jihadists and arrest of suspected recruits before they can leave. They also imply an economic blockade. But they strongly suggest that any armed intervention would simply give credence to the apocalyptic ISIS scenario of a crusade by infidels against their holy state, and would thus serve only to recruit more jihadists to the ISIS cause.
I’m not sure that all will agree with this scenario. But despite both its provisional nature and its defects (including some passages that look like rhetorical “padding”), ISIS – The State of Terror is a very good primer on a major current issue.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“MEMOIRS OF MADAME DE LA TOUR DU PIN” (“Le Journal d’une femme de cinquante ans”, written between 1820 and 1840; edited and translated into English by Felice Harcourt - English translation first published 1969)
Sometimes people of no particular achievement and no notable intellectual attainment can write memoirs that are very revealing about the times in which they lived. One such specimen was Madame de la Tour du Pin. I first came across the English translation of her memoirs about twenty years ago, and read them with great delight – not because I endorsed or shared her worldview, but because she expressed so perfectly the attitudes and values of her social class. The historian in me was constantly interested in how she (and implicitly others of her social standing) saw the events of the French revolution and much that followed it.
The Marquise de la Tour du Pin (1770-1853) was born Henriette-Lucy Dillon, the Irish surname coming from the fact that she was descended from an Irish family who had supported King James II in 1688 and therefore had fled to France when William of Orange usurped the British throne. In France the family were ennobled by Louis XIV. Henriette-Lucy was largely brought up by her grandmother in the house of her great-uncle the Archbishop of Narbonne.
In her teens Henriette-Lucy Dillon became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette in her last troubled days at Versailles. She married the Comte de Gouvernet, who later inherited the title de la Tour du Pin and who held a diplomatic post in The Hague early in the revolution. Henriette-Lucy and her husband were in Paris in 1793, at the time Louis XVI was executed. They managed to escape imprisonment and execution in the Terror by retiring to the de la Tour du Pin estate, Chateau du Bouilh, near Bordeaux. Still under threat from the Jacobins (the radical faction in the revolution), the couple managed to escape to America with the surprising help of Madame de Fontenay, the wife of the notorious Tallien, one of the most zealous of the “Terrorists”.
Husband and wife lived as amateur farmers in Albany, in upstate New York, for some of the mid-1790s. Because the Comte de la Tour du Pin was a diplomat, they were acquainted with the wily ex-bishop and diplomat Talleyrand, who was also at this time sitting out the revolution in America and who was later to become an important figure in the couple’s life. All three returned to France in the Directory period, when the Terror was over, but then fled into exile again, this time to England, when the Fructidor coup of 1798 purged possible royalist sympathisers. As French émigrés in England, they had some blood relatives among the English gentry. They welcomed the advent of Napoleon as a stabilising influence, and returned to France in 1800. The Comte de la Tour du Pin worked in Napoleon’s diplomatic service, but accepted the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814, did not support Napoleon’s return in 1815 (the “Hundred Days”), and therefore was part of the French contingent negotiating at the Congress of Vienna.
The Marquise de la Tour du Pin lived to the ripe old age of 83. She wrote her memoirs mainly in the 1820s (although she was still tinkering with them by the late 1830s), addressing them to her sole surviving son Aymar. She was in her fifties in the 1820s, hence the title her memoirs were given when they were published years later, Le Journal d’une Femme de Cinquante Ans. She stops her narrative in 1815.
From this brief summary of her life, you can see that how she lived was mainly dictated by the changing historical situation in France – the end of the Bourbon monarchy, the revolution, the Terror, the Directory, Fructidor, Napoleon, the end of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons.
How do we assess her memoirs? They are the memoirs of a minor French aristocrat, often limited in her judgments by her education and class. Her memoirs are very gossipy – naturally filled with family details of limited historical interest. She is frequently, and quite un-self-consciously, vain about her own good looks, wit and superiority. Often they read as the memoirs of a supernumerary or hanger-on who, quite falsely, sees herself as being at the centre of events.
Husband and wife are (naturally and understandably) often trimmers in dangerous historical times. (I recently reviewed for Landfall an excellent new biography of the great French explorer Dumont D’Urville, and I realise how much being a trimmer was the natural condition of most educated French people in revolutionary and Napoleonic times.) Basically they belong to the ancien regime – Madame de la Tour du Pin is often snobbish in her judgments upon later upstarts who did not manage the effortless style of her own aristocratic generation – such as the ladies of Napoleon’s court. And yet the couple’s attitudes are not inflexible. The weaknesses and inadequacies of the ancien regime are duly noted. Napoleon is admired as the restorer of French honour. And the Restoration of 1814 is seen as faintly ridiculous. (Bear in mind that France had undergone yet another revolution and regime change in 1830, before these memoirs were first published in France).
There is, I repeat, absolutely nothing remarkable in the mind that produced these memoirs. Perhaps this is the real reason that they are historically interesting. They show the judgments and reaction and prejudices that were typical of Madame de la Tour du Pin’s minor aristocratic class.
And yet… and yet…. I do not wish to underestimate Madame de la Tour du Pin any more than I want to build her up as a major literary figure. Sometimes her observations and judgments are quite shrewd – even witty – and she has seen enough not to romanticise “the good old days”. She knows full well that the revolution was not causeless and did not come out of nowhere.
To illustrate the quality of this book, I can do no better than to quote some of the passages that found their way into my reading diary. [All page numbers are according to the Harvill Press edition of 1969.]
Here is Madame de la Tour du Pin on the destructive laxity and scepticism of the old regime:
“In my earliest years, I saw things which might have been expected to warp my mind, pervert my affections, deprave my character and destroy in me every notion of religion and morality. From the age of ten I heard around me the freest conversations and the expression of the most ungodly principles. Brought up, as I was, in an Archbishop’s house where every rule of religion was broken daily, I was fully aware that my lessons in dogma and doctrine were given no more importance than those in history and geography.” (pp.13-24)
She notes that in this archbishop’s household, there was not even a chaplain to serve daily devotional needs. She goes on to speak of the general breakdown of public morality:
“The profligate reign of Louis XV had corrupted the nobility and among the Court Nobles could be found instances of every form of vice. Gaming, debauchery, immorality, irreligion, were all flaunted openly. The hierarchy of the Church, summoned to Paris for those congresses of the clergy which the King… was obliged to call every year… had also been corrupted by contact with the dissolute habits of the Court… The older I grew… the more sure I became that the revolution of 1789 was only the inevitable consequence and, I might almost say, the just punishment of the vices of the upper classes, vices carried to such excess that if people had not been stricken with a mortal blindness, they must have seen that they would inevitably have been consumed by the very fire they themselves were lighting.” (pp.26-27)
Having been a young courtier, she paints an affectionate enough portrait of Louis XIV, but she is not dazzled by him:
“He was stout, about five feet six or seven inches tall, square-shouldered and with the worst possible bearing. He looked like some peasant shambling along behind his plough; there was nothing proud or regal about him. His sword was a continual embarrassment to him and he never knew what to do with his hat, yet in court dress he looked really magnificent” (pp.71-72)
As she deals with the events that led up to the revolution, she is highly critical of the king’s inactivity and sequestration at Versailles, but she is even more critical of what she sees as the devious behaviour of the leader of the rival branch of the royal family, the Duc d’Orleans. She interprets his actions as undermining real royal authority in his own interests. As for the abolition of feudal dues and rights, she is livid as one would expect a minor aristocrat to be, declaring of this early revolutionary event:
“… the happenings of the night of the 4th of August when, on the motion of the Vicomte de Noailles, it was decreed that feudal rights should be abolished, ought to have convinced even the most incredulous that the National Assembly was unlikely to stop at this first measure of dispossession. The decree ruined my father-in-law and our family never recovered from the effect of that night’s session. It was a veritable orgy of iniquities.” (pp.116-117)
Lafayette is depicted as an honest but theatrical fool who did not realize how much he was being manipulated by Orleans. The story that royal troops donned the white cockade and cursed the people is discounted as a fiction. And we get this unflattering description of Marie-Antoinette:
“She was gifted with very great courage, but very little intelligence, absolutely no tact and, worst of all, a mistrust – always misplaced – of those most willing to serve her. She refused to recognise that the terrible danger which had threatened her on the night of the 6th of October was the result of a plot by the Duc d’Orleans, and from then on vented her resentment on all the people of Paris and avoided appearing in public.” (p.139)
While she is largely contemptuous of the feast of federation on 14 July 1790 (the first official celebration of “Bastille Day”, at a time when the king was still on the throne) she is generous enough in spirit to acknowledge the high ideals that motivated it:
“Laundresses and knights of St.Louis worked side by side in that great gathering of all the people; there was not the slightest disorder or the smallest dispute. Everyone was moved by the same impulse: fellowship.” (pp.142-143)
She is scandalised by army officers who fled abroad early in the revolution, leaving the armed forces to more radical “other ranks” and hence hastening the breakdown of order and violence against the royal state. She quotes with approval (p.160) Napoleon’s later observation that “Had I been in Lafayette’s place, the king would still be sitting on his throne.” She also gives a chilling account of the silence that fell on the city of Paris (p.177) on the morning that the king was executed, while she and her husband, in their house outside the old city walls, awaited evidence of popular revulsion against the act of regicide.
Some of her portraits of individuals are waspish and backhanded. Here she is on the revolutionary era’s supreme trimmer Talleyrand:
“M. de Talleyrand was amiable, as he unvaryingly was to me, and his conversation had a grace and ease which has never been surpassed. He had known me since my childhood and always talked to me with an almost paternal politeness which was delightful. One might, in one’s inmost mind, regret having so many reasons for not holding him in respect, but memories of his wrong-doing were always dispelled by an hour of his conversation. Worthless himself, he had, oddly enough, a horror of wrong-doing in others. Listening to him, and not knowing him, one thought him a virtuous man. Only his exquisite sense of propriety prevented him from saying things to me which would have displeased me, and if, as sometimes happened, they did escape him, he would recollect himself immediately, and say: ‘Ah yes, but you don’t like that.’ ” (p.246)
Later she remarks that “It was impossible to feel surprise at anything M. de Talleyrand did, unless, perhaps, it should be something lacking in taste. Although he served a government drawn from the dregs of the gutter, he himself remained a very great gentleman.” (p.304)
The sniffy ancien regime aristocrat comes out in Madame de la Tour du Pin when she describes Napoleon’s wife Josephine (pp.341-342) as “gracious, amiable and kindly…not outstandingly intelligent” and obviously not the sort of upper crust lady who would once have been received at royal Versailles.
In the closing pages of her memoirs, there is a continuous ambiguity in Madame de la Tour du Pin’s attitude towards the restored Bourbon monarchy. She openly expresses the opinion that the Bourbons had learned nothing in their years of exile, that they were weak and indecisive and that they shamed France in comparison with the military glories of Napoleon. But her sense of loyalty still makes her see Bonapartists as upstarts and she presents her husband as having made the right decision in standing by Louis XVIII and not joining the Hundred Days.
If you feel that I (and Madame de la Tour du Pin) have been boring you with the minutiae of French history, allow me to add that Madame de la Tour du Pin does tell some quite delightful anecdotes that have little to do with historical circumstances. She relates the tale (p.145) of a highly intelligent convent-educated girl who read the Classics in the original and who, when finally coming out of the convent in 1790, was bewildered to find that modern France was nothing like the world described in Caesar’s commentaries. Then there is this little gem, with which I will close:
“We received a visit from the father of M. d’Aix, a gentleman of the old school, without a vestige of intelligence or learning. It used to be said of him that he had, quite literally, bored his wife to death. Nonetheless, he enjoyed an income of sixty thousand francs or more a year…” (p.357)
Ah yes – boring, wealthy idiots. They are always with us.
Egotistical footnote: If the general subject of this “Something Old” interests you, you might be interested to look up, via on the index at right, my takes on Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution (the dyspeptic Scot’s version of the whole sequence of events); Frances Mossiker’s The Queen’s Necklace (about a great pre-revolutionary scandal) and Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe (his novel which gives a fictionalised version of his affair with Madame de Stael, whom Madame de la Tour du Pin credits in her memoirs with influencing appointments to the French Foreign Office in the Napoleonic era, when her husband was a diplomat). You might also look up my take on Honore de Balzac’s wonderful novel La Rabouilleuse / The Black Sheep, which concerns in part the discontents of former Bonapartists. You might have noticed that French history and literature are things that interest me.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
It is somehow easier to imagine an alien city than the city in which you live. In your mind, and thanks to the printed page, you can wander in Baudelaire’s Paris or Walt Whitman’s New York more easily than you can wander in Auckland.
Now why is this?
Because your city is a mundane thing. You take it for granted. It is the dull everyday, the drive to work, the view out the window, the thing routinely noisy and annoying and battered by rain, or too hot and crowded in the sunshine. It does not spark your imagination as much as the stink and mystery that somebody else has caught in memorable words. Why should you memorialise the diesel fumes of your commuter bus when you can ride Whitman’s ferry or follow les sept vieillards to their rendezvous? Bland city, city filled with ads, where in broad daylight nobody in particular grabs the passer-by.
But you try. You try even if some of your efforts are overwhelmed by European imagery. Some mystery can be caught in this derivative, gulch-filling metropolis. And your efforts do have the merit of being based on personal experience.
FROM THE SKY TOWER
From the Sky Tower, it’s a planner’s map.
Each boulevard is flattened, Albert Park
is a smooth greensward with no cranky hill.
20 degrees from upright, the near roofs
are mould- and rust-specked, grimy, but beyond,
at 45, they’re architects’ templates.
On arrowed arteries, the matchbox cars
slide silent journeys past homunculi
scaled to the bath-tub yachts and bonsai trees.
Ideal city on an ideal plane
Toytown to the horizon, dropped among
volcanoes, greenery and shipping lanes.
Unreal city from a tower-top
where laws of gravity are put aside
by abseilers, whose risk is pocket-deep.
Time for those fantasies from table-top
and childhood bedspread, when each fold and crease
was a defile for ambush and broadside.
The men of Ponsonby, with shields and spears,
do war with galleys from the Howick coast
and fuel 20 books of epic verse.
Condottiere, paid by Ellerslie,
force-march their way to Northcote in mere weeks
and pillage to their mercenary code.
A Grande Armee plods up the motorway
to Remuera Borodino where
Mt Hobson is the aristos’ grandstand.
The wind that shakes the tower is a mob
of orator-enraged Parisians
called out to sack casino or Bastille.
Unreal Toytown from a tower-top.
We Harry Lime it on our Ferris wheel
with cash-value assigned to human dots.
Till down the baculum we drop at last
to noise, humanity, the proper scale.
Reality. The city on the ground.
They make us catch the bus outside the law courts now.
It can be louche. Last week some vandal had smashed
the bus timetable out of its frame. We had to pick the placard up
off the pavement to check the times, even though
we really knew them already.
You meet some interesting people there, though.
I had my bum planted on that shop-window frame
where you sit because the council can’t be bothered providing seats
and this Samoan guy came and sat next to me
and we got talking.
A city bus came hurtling down the road past us.
We could hear its gears crunching and then its brakes
going squeak-squeak-squeak when the driver had to stop for the light,
and this guy said “You’d think they’d put some money
into servicing them, wouldn’t you?”
A few moments later a young couple came walking past us,
him long-haired and leather-jacketed, her tattooed on one cheek,
and we were almost pushed through the plate glass by the pong of marijuana.
We both laughed and this guy said “They probably lit up
coming out of court.”
I looked across the road. In the tinted mirror glass of an office block,
jigsawed up in the uneven squares of the separate windows,
I saw reflected the Catholic cathedral spire behind us, on Wyndham Street.
The tinting made the sky and clouds look unreal,
you know, that ideal mirror world.
So of course I went off wool-gathering in it for a few beats.
Like, was the world better when they built that spire?
Or if not, did they think it was going to be better? And did they hope more,
and imagine their little city would one day be
a metropolis of worship and justice?
Really, of course, it was just the colour of the clouds
in the tinting that was making me go like this, trying to jump
into neverland, away from the courts and the pong and the squeaking brakes,
until I heard that familiar decelerating sound
and this guy said “Your bus”.
Monday, April 6, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DEATH AND FORGIVENESS” by Jindra Ticha (Mary Egan Publishing, $NZ30)
Once upon a time on this blog I preached a long sermon on the theme that a book may express quite obnoxious ideas, but still be a great piece of writing - if it is both perceptive and well written. The example I analysed at length was Henry de Montherlant’s Les Jeunes Filles / Pitie Pour Les Femmes [look it up on the index at right under Henry de Montherlant]. This was part of my crusade to convince you that literary criticism must, quite legitimately, concern itself with a book’s ideas as well as with the quality of its writing. And under the same judgment comes the opposite case. A book may express ideas with which the reviewer is sympathetic, but not be very well written.
I am relying entirely on the blurb of Death and Forgiveness to tell you that Jindra Ticha is a Czech who emigrated to New Zealand in 1970 and has made New Zealand her homeland ever since. Because of her political opinions, she had been fired from her position as a senior lecturer at Charles University in Prague when the communist authorities reasserted themselves after the crushing of the “Prague Spring” in 1968. But she revisited the Czech Republic at the time of the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 when communism there at last collapsed. In her native tongue she has published seventeen novels and she sends a regular monthly newsletter from New Zealand to a leading Czech journal. Death and Forgiveness is her first novel to be written in English.
The premise first of all.
Death and Forgiveness is told in the first person by Anna, a woman embittered by experience and going through a time of stress and mourning. With her daughter Marie she has come to Prague for her old mother’s funeral. While there she receives the news, first that her former husband Jan has gone missing in New Zealand; and then, when his body is found, that he has clearly committed suicide. So, with Marie, she travels back to Dunedin for Jan’s funeral. She is filled with mixed feelings of grief, anger and resentment; and anxious speculation on why Jan did away with himself. As she travels she thinks back over the circumstances of her marriage to Jan – how they met, how they fled from old communist Czechoslovakia and especially how they travelled to New Zealand in 1969, as assisted immigrants, on the Italian liner the Achille Lauro. So the technique in the novel is to cut between Anna’s journey to New Zealand in the present and her memories of the journey to New Zealand over 45 years ago.
The title very clearly spells out where all this is going. Death and Forgiveness tells us promptly that Anna has much to forgive Jan for. After years of marriage, and after she had given up her career for him, he left her for a younger woman, Clavdia, who is now waiting in New Zealand to be a daunting part of the funeral gathering. On the other hand Anna had also had a long-running affair behind Jan’s back, and some guilt is added to the turmoil of her feelings. But we know that somehow forgiveness will trump all this.
Thus the set-up. Let me say at once that the concept of the book is a good one, the structure of two journeys leads us sturdily to the conclusion and many wise things are said along the way. The narrator (or is it the author?) holds in contempt the old communist state in which she was raised, and is frequently appalled by “liberal” Westerners who refuse to understand what a closed and oppressive society communism created. Typical is the following passage in which Anna reflects on her status on the Achille Lauro:
“I admit that it had never even crossed my mind that as a first-class passenger I would have different privileges from the people who travelled in the second class. From childhood, I had had the idea drummed into me by the communists that I am a nobody, just like the rest of their unfortunate subjects, and that no matter how smart, talented and hard-working I might be, no special privileges are due to me. Privileges were only for the party bureaucrats. In this sense the communist idea triumphed: everyone was convinced of their own insignificance. I believed that every street-sweeper, every cleaning lady deserved the same esteem in society as doctors, lawyers, university professors. Actually it went even further than that: I had been taught that every labourer was worth more than someone with a university education. The general rule was that someone with talent, or someone from a family distinguished because it helped to create the wealth of the country, deserved nothing but scorn.” (p.57)
Elsewhere, she remarks of her former lover:
“We went to the same school together some fifty years ago. I was twelve, he was thirteen and his harsh life was just beginning. Unlike the rest of the class, he was denied any higher education because of his supposedly bourgeois background. The communists were the first and only masters of this land who cut off the benefits of education to the brightest children. Not even the Nazis came up with this diabolically simple idea of how to strangle the intellectual elite.” (p.69)
Yet rejection of communism does not automatically deliver a strong basis for ethics. Anna sometimes gets to analyse fairly shrewdly the emptiness inside her and a deep-laid reason for her marriage’s collapse, as when she declares:
“There was little doubt that I had behaved immorally. I was the first one to betray the vows of devotion in our marriage. My views on morality were deeply flawed. I was an atheist, I did not believe in God but rather in the power of reason. Morality was in my opinion quite independent of reason. Like the majority of atheists, I was arrogant and believed in my own moral standards. And my standards were quite simple: I acted as I pleased. Without faith, morality does not make much sense. Who would guarantee moral laws? I came to the conclusion that there were no moral laws; hence I did not have a duty to follow conventional morality.” (p.119)
Later in the novel, and especially as the funeral in Dunedin looms, there are some interesting passages on the nature of forgiveness, on learning to understand even people who have blighted your life, on the important corporate role of religion and especially on the long-term experience of grief. I was also struck by the passage in which Anna recalls (in her memories of 1969) her complete cultural shock in trading sophisticated and ancient Europe for a raw and small New Zealand city.
All in all, then, I was in sympathy with what the novel was saying – or rather, what I think it intended to say.
Unfortunately, the style does not match the intention. The prose of Death and Forgiveness is flat and often unconvincing. Given that the author is for the first time venturing outside her native language, this might be a cruel thing to say, but it is true nevertheless. Too often things are told to us, rather than being dramatized, as in the following too obvious analysis of the narrator’s feelings:
“When I return home, Marie is already there, as gloomy and bad-tempered as I am. We had had a fight in the morning; it was my fault, I had blamed her for something unimportant. My behaviour was stupid. I had suddenly felt a surge of anger, something that happens to me quite often of late. My anger was totally irrational and impossible to control. A tidal wave of hatred envelops me in such moments and I cannot fight it however hard I try; struggling against it is as impossible as struggling against a real tidal wave. Just as my black anger reaches its height, it vanishes as inexplicably as it arrived and I am left calm and composed again. I have a tendency to find an excuse for myself. It is the people around me who provoked me, I tell myself. Deep down, though, I know very well that these attacks are inexcusable and unpardonable. I am afraid of this characteristic; there is an element of madness there.” (p.21)
It is noticeable, for example, that while we often hear of the narrator’s feelings for Jan, we hardly ever have a scene of sustained action involving him and hardly ever hear any dialogue from his lips. Rather, the narrator tells us explicitly what was good and bad about him. Indeed there is a major problem lurking here. First-person narrations are one thing, but in this case the author leaves no trace of irony, no sense that this is in any way an “unreliable narrator”, but instead seems to identify wholeheartedly with her fictional creation.
This novel is preceded by the standard disclaimer that “all characters and events are imaginary, and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental”. Of course I know nothing of the author’s personal circumstances, and do not know how much she is dealing with issues from her own life. But it is clear that she first voyaged to New Zealand at about the same time her Anna did and much that she writes about the voyage on the Achille Lauro seems more like reminiscence (or perhaps worked-up diary notes) than novel. Why are we introduced to some of these shipboard characters when they do nothing to advance the central dramatic situation? And why do we get clunky tourist brochure stuff such as the following? :
“The Sydney Opera House is unique in its beauty. The view it commands over the Sydney harbour is magnificent: no other opera house in the world provides such a spectacle at intermission. Theatregoers can walk on the great balcony and watch the myriad of illuminated ships sailing by. The opera house truly belongs to the harbour, as if nature itself could not find a better place for it.” (pp.88-89)
I am not knocking the author’s conception, her ideas or whatever message she has to deliver on grief, forgiveness and the healing power of time. But I am saying that her grasp is not as great as her reach, and I too often had the sense that I was reading a memoir, giving one party’s view of a failed marriage, rather than a novel with rounded characters.