Review of: The Iliad, by Homer, translated by Stephen Mitchell

iliad-mitchell

The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Begin at the time when bitter words first divided
that king of men, Agamemnon, and godlike Achilles.
–Mitchell lyric translation The Iliad

That is the opening seven lines of the quirky, modern, lyric translation of Homer’s The Iliad by Stephen Mitchell. This was my third read of The Iliad, arguably the foundational work of literature in Western Civilization, which I consider the finest book ever written. Like many, I grew up fascinated with the Trojan War, my volume of The Iliad in decorative binding beckoning to me from my bookshelves since I was about twelve years old. That edition, the prose version by Samuel Butler, which I read for the first time with some dramatic impact in middle age, reproduces those same lines as:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
–Butler prose translation of The Iliad

Verse may have been too great an obstacle for me on that first, untrained read, but my experience with the nineteenth century Butler version—which lacks poetic beauty and, worse, employs the associated Roman names for the Greek gods—nevertheless sponsored an obsession with the history and literature of ancient Greece that has carried me with great fervor for nearly two decades hence. And it inspired my next read, some years later, of the beautiful lyric translation by Richard Lattimore, which renders those lines as:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
–Lattimore lyric translation of The Iliad

Now that is poetry! It sounds even better in Greek than English, of course, but I can yet imagine something like that rhythm as bards recited the epic to audiences thousands of years ago! The Iliad is an epic poem written in dactylic hexameter meter that depends on the differentiation between long syllables and short syllables for the rhythm in its verse. It was written in Homeric Greek in 15,693 lines that later were divided into 24 books—23 books in the Mitchell edition, but more on that later. Here’s what those opening lines look like in Greek:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.
The Iliad in Greek

Archaeology has demonstrated that the existence of Troy—ancient Ilium, now the site of multiple layers of excavated ruins going back to 3000 BCE at the tell of Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey—is not a myth, even if history cannot prove that the legendary conflict between a coalition of Mycenaean Greeks and Troy ever occurred. Still, while Homer’s account was certainly fictional, most accept that the war was a historic event, if only because the Trojan War cuts such a deep groove in the memory of the ancient Greeks that it seems unlikely that it was created out of whole cloth. There is evidence that the archaeological level denoted as Troy VIIa—likely a vassal state of the Hittites strategically situated near the mouth of the Hellespont (today’s Dardanelles)—was destroyed by war circa 1184 BCE, at the cusp of the collapse of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean World. This remains the best candidate for the city that tradition said succumbed to the decade-long warfare and siege at the swords of the Greeks.

But The Iliad is not actually about the Trojan War. Rather, The Iliad—although it indeed takes place during the Trojan War—is instead specifically about what has come to be called “the wrath of Achilles.” The Iliad covers only about fifty-one days in the tenth and final year of the war. The events leading up to the war and its conclusion—the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, by Paris, Prince of Troy, which sparked it, and the subterfuge of the Trojan Horse that finally brought the city to ruin—would have been well-known to the ancient Greeks and thus receive little or no attention in this narrative. (This is no less true of the many episodes of the war revealed in non-Homeric tales contained in what has come to be called the “Epic Cycle,” or the stories of its aftermath told in Homer’s Odyssey.)

The Iliad opens as the Greek army is beset by plague sent by Apollo because Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek forces, refuses to return the daughter of a priest of Apollo he has abducted as a spoil of war. Eventually Agamemnon capitulates, but then takes in her place a woman belonging to Achilles, King of the Myrmidons, an allied force from Thessaly. This sparked the famous wrath of Achilles, a great hero who in his anger withdraws in a sulk from the fight. Achilles is the son of a goddess whom he asks to prevail upon Zeus to favor the Trojans in the war so that the Greeks—known variously here as Achaeans, Danaans or Argives—will come to appreciate in their suffering how essential Achilles is to any hope for victory. In addition to intrigue, much of what follows includes some of the greatest scenes of warfare ever written, with an unsparing eye for the blood and gore of battle. This is also a story with much complexity. The characters—gods and humans—are extremely well-crafted, there is outstanding dialogue, as well as some of the finest applications of analogy as a literary device in the entire canon of western literature. The Achaeans suffer mightily as Achilles spitefully sits out the war. Eventually, Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus borrows his armor and goes out to fight in his place, only to be slain by Hector, the mighty hero who is brother to Paris and son of King Priam of Troy. Now Achilles settles his differences with Agamemnon, magnificent new armor is forged for him by the gods, and he returns to battle, killing Hector and dragging his body by chariot around the walls of Troy to defile it in the eyes of his father. Later, Priam visits and supplicates himself before Achilles, begging for the body of his son so he can properly perform funeral rites. Moved, Achilles grants his wish. The Iliad concludes with the merciless sacrifice of Trojan prisoners upon the pyre of Patroclus, and elaborate funeral games presided over by Achilles.

The ancient Greek audience would know the rest of the story: that Paris, Priam and Achilles would all forfeit their lives, that Troy would fall, that Helen would return to Sparta with Menelaus, that Agamemnon would return to Mycenae only to be murdered by his wife and her lover. But none of that has any importance to this tale, which is always and ever about Achilles. Achilles, half-god and half-man, has always seemed to me to be the mirror-image of humanity for all of its grace and its savagery. Achilles can be ugly: Achilles would see his friends and allies slaughtered to redeem his spite; Achilles revels in envy, in anger, in unparalleled sulk; Achilles is savage, is vengeful, is merciless, is unrepentant. But yet Achilles is also beautiful, physically and spiritually. Achilles is remarkably courageous, fiercely loyal, is capable of irrepressible love and grace and kindness and empathy. Achilles could be your very worst enemy as well as your very best friend, in a single heartbeat. Achilles is the Bronze Age. Achilles is the blood-spattered twentieth century. Achilles is our god and our devil. Achilles is you and me.

The Iliad, a story equally of gods and men, is the closest the ancient Greeks ever had to something like the Christian Bible. It was born out of an oral tradition, and no doubt was recited from memory for generations before it was written down. The civilization of the Mycenaeans collapsed along with the Bronze Age; the subsequent “Dark Age” saw Greeks lose literacy as their “Linear B” writing system went extinct. When they rediscovered writing centuries later—borrowing the alphabet from the Phoenicians and brilliantly adding vowels—the very first thing they seem to have written down was Homer’s epics, circa the mid-eighth century BCE. It is unknown whether Homer himself was the real author or even a real person, or simply a literary construct, but that controversy hardly seems to matter, for The Iliad, and its companion quasi-sequel, The Odyssey, are without question outstanding literature that resonate far beyond their tales or their age.

But in English translation, each version is a different story of sorts, hence the temptation to read it again and again, channeled through different masters. And there are many. In addition to Butler, Lattimore, and Mitchell, there are celebrated versions by Robert Fagles and Robert Fitzgerald; I personally also own translations by A.T. Murray and Andrew Lang. That is but a mere handful of the available choices. There is a beauty in reading The Iliad, every time, in every iteration, but for me the Mitchell translation was the most eccentric, and it left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, and on the plus side, Mitchell literally takes no prisoners as he renders the brutal, sanguinary battle scenes as the fast-moving action narratives they were meant to be. On the other, the realism in the modern vernacular occasionally sacrifices authenticity in the work; Mitchell has Achilles refer to Agamemnon as a “son of a bitch,” which reminded me unfavorably of how the literary splendor of the King James Version of the Old Testament is often painfully cratered by modern “hip” translations. Mitchell also opts to reduce redundancy in the narrative by eliminating the repetition of such famously descriptive epithets as “swift-footed” Achilles, “horse-taming” Hector, and “white-armed” Hera, that underscore the poetry in motion; the final product suffers for this omission. Homeric scholars most object to Mitchell’s deliberate excise of The Iliad’s “Book Ten,” a tale of Odysseus and Diomedes on a nighttime adventure between the battle lines, which some hold to be a later addition to the Homeric canon worthy of deletion. For myself, I see little merit in his decision, but neither does the cut inflict a fatal wound upon the epic.

Yet, for all of that, there is indeed outstanding literature in Mitchell’s Homer, as in this excerpt from Book Seventeen:

But apart from the battle, Achilles’ horses were weeping;
they had not stopped since the moment they learned that Patroclus
had just been cut down at the hands of man-killing Hector.
Automedon did whatever he could; he hit them
again and again with his whistling whip, and he tried
persuading them with soft words, then angry threats.
But the horses refused to budge; they would not go back
to the ships, nor would they go forward into the fighting.
Motionless as a gravestone that has been set
upon the funeral mound of some lord or lady,
they stood there in front of the chariot, hanging their heads.
Hot tears flowed from their eyes and fell to the ground
as they mourned for their charioteer, who was gone forever,
And their long, luxuriant manes became filthy and trailed
in the dirt, from the collar on either side of the yoke.

Now that is a great translation! I am not certain that I would recommend Mitchell to the uninitiated for a first time read of The Iliad, but neither would I necessarily dissuade it. My own favorite version remains Lattimore, which I think best catches the spirit and the cadence of the work, but I do not regret my time with Mitchell. His was a fine effort that deserves praise for turning out something new and beautiful from something old and wonderful. There truly can be no fault in that.

Review of: A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, by Ernest Hemingway

Arguably, Ernest Hemingway was the greatest American writer of the twentieth century. Because it is probably unfair to declare one author greater than another of their contemporaries when their styles and methods varied so much—William Faulkner and A Moveable FeastF. Scott Fitzgerald spring to mind—such an accolade should probably be qualified by “among the greatest.” But I would still put Hemingway in first place, if only because his style was so unique and his reach so vast: he not only penned a handful of truly great novels—The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls—but also dozens of magnificent short stories, including “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” plus the semi-autobiographical “Nick Adams” tales, as well as the striking vignettes inserted between the stories in the published collections. And that was just his fiction. His roots as a skilled journalist made manifest the staccato bursts of short sentences that became his signature style, and without a doubt served as the basis for his ability to witness people and events and distill it all into captivating prose. Whether you are fascinated or repulsed (or a little of both!) by bullfighting or big game hunting, there are probably no better chronicles of these pursuits than, respectively, Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa. Hemingway’s genius for nonfiction is again underscored in A Moveable Feast, a memoir first published posthumously in 1964 by his fourth wife Mary, and then controversially re-edited and re-released in this “restored edition,” by his grandson Sean.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” Hemingway wrote, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” This marvelous book is a collection of sketches of that “moveable feast” by that talented but penurious young man who lived in Paris in the early 1920s, struggling to earn a living as a foreign correspondent while perfecting his fiction, reading everything he could lay his hands on, skipping meals to finance trips to the race track, skiing in the most primitive conditions, drinking up a storm at cafés, and glorying in a whirlwind of activities with his first wife (Hadley Richardson, with whom here he is very much in love), and a gaggle of literary expatriates whose names read like a catalog of authors from the spines of books on the shelf of a fine personal library: John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and many others.

Revealed here is a kinetic energy and optimism in the young “Hem,” as well as an admiration and respect for other artists conspicuously absent in his later years. This version of Hemingway is extremely likeable: gregarious, curious, kind, considerate; craving the friendship and attention of both the famous and the little-known characters in his orbit. It was this fecund period that spawned The Sun Also Rises, his first novel and one of his finest. Later in life, his talent for his craft visibly diminished, lost to excessive alcohol, punishing physical injuries, and a kind of vulgar, outsize grandstanding that turned him into something of caricature of himself. He could often be mercurial, violent, boastful, immature; a mean drunk, a lousy husband, frequently a bad friend who was envious and resentful of another’s success, and spiteful enough to conspicuously malign them (as he did Scott Fitzgerald, more than once) in his writings.  Thus it is that Hemingway’s episodic account of his early years in this volume is so energizing for the reader—revisiting a lost era of Paris between two devastating world wars, guided by a young man on the very cusp of becoming a great writer who is at once full of love for his lady and his life—yet nevertheless colored by the poignancy of the knowledge of what lies ahead for both Paris and its protagonist.

In 1956, Hemingway rediscovered two small steamer trunks that he had stored and forgotten at the Hotel Ritz Paris nearly three decades before, full of the notebooks he had kept during the 1920s.  These were the primary sources for A Moveable Feast, which is why it reads with such freshness and optimism. Hemingway transcribed and edited these as a basis for a memoir he never completed.  After his 1961 suicide, his fourth and final wife Mary reworked this manuscript for publication, putting changes to his draft that some have criticized. Also criticized with some greater vehemence is this “restored edition,” reworked yet again by his grandson Sean Hemingway, and containing additional material. As with all posthumous works, we can only wonder what the living author would have wanted us to read. But all of that is of less consequence to the reader than the wonder of this gift to us from that author. Again and again, throughout this volume, I came upon paragraphs written nearly a century ago by a man I consider the finest literary artist of his generation that took my breath away.  Paragraphs such as:

The worst thing I remember of that avalanche winter was one man who was dug out. He had squatted down and made a box with his arms in front of his head, as we had been taught to do, so that there would be air to breathe as the snow rose up over you. It was a huge avalanche and it took a long time to dig everyone out, and this man was the last to be found. He had not been dead long and his neck was worn through so that the tendons and the bone were visible. He had been turning his head from side to side against the pressure of the snow. In this avalanche there must have been some old, packed snow mixed in with the new light snow that had slipped. We could not decide whether he had done it on purpose or if he had been out of his head. But there was no problem because he was refused burial in consecrated ground by the local priest anyway; since there was no proof he was a Catholic.

And that is why you read Hemingway! Not because you are impressed by the man he was, or the caricature of the man he came to personify, although both of these are fascinating.  Not because of his utilization of the “objective correlative” as a literary device, although he did employ it masterfully.  Not because he could tell us stories about wars, and bulls, and illuminated cafés, but he certainly knew such stories and told them well.  But because he was truly an outstanding writer who frequently bestowed upon us truly great literature.  This is why A Moveable Feast is required reading not only for the Hemingway aficionado, but for anyone who wants to experience such an artist at the height of his form.  Paris may have been Hemingway’s moveable feast, but our very own moveable feast might be found in the books of glorious prose he has bequeathed to us.  With that in mind, I will let Hemingway conclude this review of his work with his own words rather than that of the reviewer:

Nobody climbs on skis now and almost everybody breaks their legs but maybe it is easier in the end to break your legs than to break your heart although they say that everything breaks now and that sometimes, afterwards, many are stronger at the broken places. I do not know about that now but this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.

Review of: Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami

I must admit that I winced just a little when I took in the title of Haruki Murakami’s most recent release, Men Without Women. I have read all of Murakami’s fiction to date, and to my mind his male characters, for the most part, are average, passive, weak-willed, Men Without Womenapathetic, and decidedly boring. In his celebrated novel Norwegian Wood, Murakami has Reiko Ishida, the woman in the mountain asylum, say: “I’m much better at bringing out the best in others than in myself . . . I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox. But that’s fine with me . . . Better to be a first-class matchbox than a second-class match.”  I always thought it was a great quote, but far more appropriate for that book’s male central character, Toru Watanabe, than for her.  For while the male protagonists are often forgettable, Murakami’s art shines in his creation of the strong, colorful female characters that populate his fiction, such as the teenage May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the eccentric Sumire of Sputnik Swetheart, and most prominently the indomitable Aomame (“Green Peas”) of his masterpiece, 1Q84.

Fortunately, there are plenty of such strong females in Men Without Women, a collection of previously released and original short stories that first appeared in Japan in 2014, and published in translation (by Phillip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) in the United States on May 9, 2017—which may or may not be coincidental to the 1927 publication by Ernest Hemingway of his identically titled collection, ninety years prior. As in Murakami’s After the Quake, from 2003, the title serves as a loose theme for the stories it contains. In this case, there are seven, four of which appeared before in various other publications. Although all the central characters are male, many of these men serve as little more than supernumeraries, while the women in their respective orbits stand out as the vital, dramatic key players.

That is certainly true in the previously published “Drive My Car,” which like Norwegian Wood recycles a Beatles’ tune for literary effect. The man without a woman here is Kafuku, a widowed actor beset with sadness and bad eyesight who distrusts female drivers, but nevertheless hires as his chauffeur Misaki, a somewhat less-than-attractive, chain-smoker who has little to say but is a great listener.  And Kafuku, it turns out, has a lot to say, eventually relating an odd tale of how, after his wife’s death, he deliberately cultivated a friendship with a man he knew had secretly been her lover.  As time goes by, over the course of otherwise unremarkable daily commutes, the laconic Misaki grows into an insightful interlocutor, and serves as unlikely muse to help Kafuku come to terms with his late wife, and—most critically—himself.

A similarly introspective tale is one of the new stories written for this collection, “An Independent Organ,” which, like “Drive My Car,” is a kind of a story about a story. In a tragedy replete with stark metaphor, the utterly romantically agnostic heart—that independent organ—of a certain Dr. Tokai gets broken upon the wheel of unrequited love. The reader never meets the woman that he is without; she is but a wistful echo of Dr. Tokai’s terminal suffering. Both the title and the essence of the tale seem to smack of Edgar Allen Poe.

A Beatles’ song is again the title for the previously released “Yesterday,” about a guy named Kitaru with a repressed sexuality who urges his best friend to date his own girlfriend, Erika Kuritani. It is not a strong story, but in Erika, Murakami has crafted a superb object of desire. Her description of a recurring dream of a moon made of ice that melts away—and her prevailing terror that in the next dream the moon may not reappear—sets the reader longing for Erika to return in a future role, even if there is little remorse when Kitaru drops off the page.

Those who crave Murakami’s brand of magical realism will be delighted with two previously published stories. The first is “Kino,” a creepy tale with familiar elements from classic Murakami fiction, including an abrupt, failed marriage, a cat that seems much more than a cat, and a jazz bar frequented by mysterious guests. As in 1Q84, the eponymous Kino seems to be standing on the fragile edge of two intersecting worlds, beset by serpents, having random sex with a woman scarred by her sadomasochistic boyfriend, and subject to various menacing encounters that have him seek shelter in a locked room, where much like Kafuku and Dr. Takai, be finds a badly bruised heart. The other is “Samsa in Love,” a wicked alternate reality of isolation starring none other than Gregor Samsa, the anguished protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Since Kafka on the Shore remains my all-time favorite Murakami novel, I got a special kick out of the device employed here. I even imagined Tim Burton turning it into an animated film à la Corpse Bride! I also wondered how many readers would fail to identify Samsa as the literary icon retooled in homage to the master.

Another fine story is the title piece of this collection, “Men Without Women,” in which a man awakens to an unexpected middle-of-the-night phone call from the husband of his long-ago ex-lover, announcing without explanation her recent suicide. The centrality of the story has nothing, really, to do with the main character or the hapless husband, but rather the memories that form a kind of ghost of the woman he only refers to as “M.” She—M—is the woman the men are truly, and as well inexplicably, profoundly without.

My favorite story is a re-read for me: the first time I read the brilliantly crafted “Scheherazade” was when it appeared in The New Yorker several years ago, in translation from the original collection in Japanese, and I have frequently recommended it as an opportunity for the uninitiated to encounter Murakami in top form.  Habara is the central protagonist, on house arrest of some sort for an offense never articulated, visited twice weekly by an otherwise plain, middle-aged housekeeper whom he dubs “Scheherazade,” because after she indulges him in frequently perfunctory sexual encounters, she relates marvelous, sequential stories that enthrall Habara. It is her visits—and much more than the sex, her stories—that serve as powerful antidote to Habara’s sense of isolation. When Scheherazade was a school girl, she tells Habara, she developed an obsessive, unconsummated crush on a boy that she addressed by breaking into his home when he was not there, stealing something incidental of his and leaving in place something intimate of her own. Scheherazade has an exceptional belief that she was a lamprey in another life, and when she was in the boy’s room, alone, she transformed metaphorically into that lamprey, “… suckers stuck to a rock underwater and my body waving back and forth overhead, like the weeds around me.” [p124] This a story well-worth reading again and again.

It has been reported that Murakami never writes short stories and novels at the same time; it is always one kind or another, but never both.  I was left underwhelmed by his last novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, so it is my hope that this collection means he is setting his short fiction aside in favor of another grand work like 1Q84.  Of course, whatever he turns out, I can guarantee that I will read it! It might be said that Murakami is for literature what the Grateful Dead is for music: you either love it or you hate it. I happen to favor both, but literature, like music, is highly subjective. If you have not done so, give it a try, but be warned: if you fall for it, you may find yourself compelled to read all of it.  Men Without Women is as good a place to start as any.

[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami—his his outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” from Men Without Women—is available online at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/scheherazade-3]

[NOTE: Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore,  was released in Japan in February, 2017. There will no doubt be a long wait for the English translation.]

[NOTE: This blog has featured reviews of several other works of Murakami fiction, including:

South of the Border, West of the Sun: https://regarp.com/2015/12/26/review-of-south-of-the-border-west-of-the-sun-by-haruki-murakami/

Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball 1973 https://regarp.com/2015/11/26/review-of-hear-the-wind-sing-and-pinball-1973-by-haruki-murakami/

After the Quake https://regarp.com/2015/09/09/review-of-after-the-quake-by-haruki-murakami/

Sputnik Sweetheart https://regarp.com/2015/05/30/review-of-sputnik-sweetheart-by-haruki-murakami/

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman https://regarp.com/2015/05/17/review-of-blind-willow-sleeping-woman-by-haruki-murakami/]

 

 

 

 

 

Review of: The Indus: Lost Civilizations, by Andrew Robinson

In the late fifth century BCE, one Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek physician at the Persian court, wrote passages that described the Indus River and its environs in the distant land of Sindh, and spoke of local exotica, including unicorns. Even then there was no memory The Indusof the great ancient civilization that once flourished there and then fell, a millennium and a half before. Another millennium and a half was to pass before British railway builders stumbled upon the startling remains of what is today called the Harappan, or more commonly, the Indus Valley Civilization, which once straddled the now sometimes contentious border region of southern Pakistan and northwestern India. Among the artifacts eventually uncovered were ancient Indus seals–contemporary with Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt–inscribed with a script that yet remains undeciphered, and decorated with images of unicorns!

The hearts of ancient history aficionados tend to beat a little faster when the Indus Valley Civilization comes up in conversation. One of three great ancient civilizations of the Old World, along with Egypt and the Mesopotamian city states, it almost certainly hosted the largest population–perhaps as many as five million–and was the most geographically widespread. Yet, it is the least known and thus the most fascinating and enigmatic of the three.

It is this that makes the publication of The Indus, by Andrew Robinson–the first entry in a new series entitled Lost Civilizations–such a welcome addition to the scholarship. In a remarkable achievement, Robinson–a polymath who is at once journalist, scholar, and prolific author–has written an outstanding digest-sized volume that brilliantly summarizes nearly everything that we know about Indus and what remains unknown or in dispute. Moreover, he does so in an engaging narrative style replete with fact, analysis and interpretation suitable to both the scholarly and popular audience.

In 1856, British engineers laying the East Indian Railway Company line in the Punjab pilfered tons of bricks for ballast from forgotten ruins along the way, including Harappa, unicorn-seal_0which unknown to them was once a great urban center inhabited from 3500-1300 BCE, and one of the largest cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Some years later, amateur excavations turned up the first unicorn seal, but its significance was overlooked. Serious archaeology began in the 1920s, and coincided with the discovery of another large city, Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh. The following decades revealed that the Indus Valley Civilization encompassed a vast region represented by well over a thousand cities and settlements (uncovered thus far), extending over at least at least 800,000 square kilometers (more than 300,000 square miles), with a population in the millions.

This astonishing civilization, at its height 2600-1900 BCE, was built upon thriving river basin communities centered upon wheat and barley cultivation (and later, rice) along the Indus River, as well as another ancient river that long ago went dry and vanished, that some–including Robinson—identify with the legendary Saraswati and its descendant, the Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which now flows only with the monsoon. It is clear from Indus seals (which depicted real as well as fanciful creatures!) that they domesticated animals, including the humped zebu cattle and the water buffalo. Arts and crafts were highly developed, as was metallurgy. In addition to a writing system, they created a uniform system of weights and measures. Extensive trade networks by land and sea carried raw materials and finished objects as far as away as Mesopotamia, where no less a historical figure than Sargon of Akkad circa 2300 BCE boasted of ships from “Meluhha,” as the Indus was known to him, docking at his capital. Trade may also have extended to Egypt and Minion Crete. Their cities were architecturally stylized masterpieces of engineering, evidenced careful street planning, and remarkably sophisticated water drainage and sewage systems–including the world’s first toilets–that could only have been possible in a highly organized and carefully managed society. Yet, there appears to be no indication of armies or warfare. Indus Valley Civilization flourished for centuries before entering a period of slow decline most likely due to environmental factors, around 1900BCE—several hundred years prior to the time Ramses II ruled Egypt—and eventually disappeared entirely, although tantalizing traces of its cultural imprint can be detected even today.

Indus_Valley_Civilization,_Mature_Phase_(2600-1900_BCE)What can we make of Indus, which truly is a “lost” civilization? As Robinson describes it, the challenges of archeology and interpretation have been and remain substantial. Stripping ruins for railway construction was only the first of many insults to the legacy of Indus. Early excavations were sloppy, in the days before strict archaeological methodology was standardized. With scant evidence, conclusions were reached and loudly trumpeted of a warlike people given to “militaristic imperialism” led by a “ruthless authoritarian regime,” who finally only succumbed to Indo-Aryan invaders—none of which stands up to scrutiny. The material culture has yet to reveal any traces of war, or even soldiers. And while Indo-Aryan migrations into the region did in fact occur, these were not coterminous with Indus decline. At the other extreme, Hindu nationalists—who vehemently reject the scholarly consensus that Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-European language family rooted in those later Indo-Aryan migrations—have on entirely spurious grounds attempted to hijack Indus as the autochthonous ancestor of Hinduism and Indian national identity. These politically powerful forces have even created from whole-cloth a faux decipherment of the Indus script, to serve their propaganda objectives, which is utterly baseless. Archaeological efforts have been compromised over the years by a variety of factors, most prominently the 1947 partition that created Pakistan and India as separate and often hostile nation states—and effectively drew an international boundary line through Indus sites in a volatile region that makes excavation both difficult and dangerous. Moreover, environmental dynamics in flooding and high water table salinity threaten existing sites and complicate future excavation. In fact, about ninety percent of Indus sites remain unexcavated, including Ganweriwala, a huge urban center that ranks in size with Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro! Finally, the stubborn resistance of the Indus script to decipherment despite decades of intensive efforts offers little hope that the many mysteries of the Indus Valley Civilization will be resolved anytime soon.

It is a testament to the genius of the author that he was able to take so much material and condense it down to such a small volume without compromising the quality of the work. Concisely but carefully, in chapters that examine architecture, trade, society and the like, he discusses what is known and deconstructs competing arguments of interpretation. And while he refutes the specious attempts of Hindu nationalists to connect the dots from ancient Indus to modern India, Robinson makes a strong case for continuity in conspicuous traces of Indus Valley Civilization that seem to have indeed left an indelible footprint on the South Asian landscape. There are elements of religious symbolism that echo in Hinduism, including ritual purification, as well as the unique system of weights and measures that still survives in markets in India and Pakistan today. One of the book’s many delightful photographs shows Harappan terracotta votive objects depicting zebus and a wheeled cart, juxtaposed with a facing page contemporary photo of a similar bullock cart in use in the Indus valley, some four thousand years later. Robinson includes much discussion of the Indus writing system and the lost language it recorded, as well as its possible link to the Dravidian family of languages prevalent in southern India today.

Robinson’s little book is an excellent introduction to an extraordinary civilization that has been all but lost to time. Skillfully organized and well-written, this fine work also contains a wealth of illustrations, photographs, maps, and a timeline, adding to its accessibility for the general audience, while the meticulous notes underscore its reliability for a more scholarly one. A glance at some of the human faces staring back at us from Indus art provokes chills of a sort for the modern reader, evoking snippets of Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias and reflecting that long before Caesar, or Pericles, or even Tutankhamen, in the days when Khufu’s mummy was interred at Giza, there was a magnificent civilization in South Asia that then disappeared from human memory for thousands of years. And we are still trying to rediscover it.

[Map credit: By Avantiputra7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIndus_Valley_Civilization%2C_Mature_Phase_(2600-1900_BCE).png ]

[Unicorn Seal credit:  Unicorn Seal, Mohenjo-Daro, https://www.harappa.com/indus/25.html]

Review of: The Sound of One Hand Clapping, by Richard Flanagan

To my mind, great literature is best defined by the visceral reaction it triggers and its stubborn lingering effect. After the plot has faded, the names of the characters erased, The Sound of One Hand Clappingand the book itself diminished by passing time into a sort of vague mental snapshot of its encounter, the way a great novel makes you feel while you read it cuts a kind of indelible groove that resonates long after the cover is closed. That is not only fine writing: that is art. And that is the art in the novels crafted by Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan.

My first encounter with Flanagan was Gould’s Book of Fish, a stunningly original and brilliant blend of satire, heartache, love, cruelty, comedy, and existential tragedy, tossed with a superb use of magical realism. Think William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and John Irving, all stirring the same pot with different shaped spoons. Originally published in 2001, I consider it the finest novel of the millennium to date. I have since read five of the six books Flanagan has written, including The Narrow Road to the Deep North, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2014. *

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a much earlier work, published in 1997. The central character is Sonja Buloh, a strong but troubled woman in her late-thirties who returns to her birthplace in Tasmania. The novel’s title–adapted from the famous Zen kōan–evokes the bleak narrative that marked the formative years of Sonja’s life, abandoned at three years old by a mother who disappears into a blizzard, and thereafter shuttled between various temporary households by her often alcoholic and sometimes violent father, Bojan Bojan, a Slovenian immigrant whose parenting ranges from adoration to abuse. Flourishing a technique reminiscent of André Brink in A Chain of Voices, Flanagan skillfully moves between moments in time without losing anchor to the present, exploring Sonja’s childhood and, significantly, Bojan’s young manhood, which smacks of memories littered with atrocities and corpses of Nazis and Slovenian partisans. This is a book of much tragedy, of much disappointment, yet also one of hope and redemption. There is just a hint of the magical realism later manifested Gould’s Book of Fish. But there is here, as in all of Flanagan’s fiction, an abundance of fine prose as well as a masterful use of the objective correlative–a literary device that conjures emotion in the inanimate–often seen in the works of Hemingway and Garcia Marquez.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping has much of the feel of a first novel, although it is not. Flanagan’s first novel was the magnificent Death of a River Guide, which was no doubt a hard act to follow. ** One Hand Clapping seems rougher and less sophisticated than River Guide. There are portions that seem extraneous and beg for edit. It can be slow-going, especially because the elements that make you want to care about the characters are not fully fleshed out until the last third of the book. On more than one occasion there is the thud of the anticlimactic dully falling flat. And yet …

And yet the quality of the prose never disappoints; warts-and-all this is a novel that generously rewards the reader for patience and loyalty to the narrative. After it is done, there remains a powerful urge to read it through again. There are few writers of contemporary literary fiction that can deliver at this level, something a review like this can certainly attest but by all rights demands to be heard in Flanagan’s own voice:

In the great forests beyond, the devils and quolls and possums and potaroos and wombats and wallabies also came to curious life in the night, and they roamed the earth for what little they could scavenge to keep themselves alive, and when they mistakenly ventured onto the new gravel roads that were everywhere invading their world, it was to be mesmerised by the sudden shock of moving electric light that rendered them no longer an element of the great forests or plains, but a poor pitiful creature alone whose fate it was to be crushed between rubber and metal. Having being shown by the electric light to have no existence or meaning or world beyond a glaring outline upon the gravel, each animal was killed easily by the men who drove drunk to and from their place of work, heading to or from the whores and grog and the card games of the bigger towns. By day the roads were speckled red with the resultant carnage and startled hawks feasting on the carcasses would hastily rise into the air dragging rapidly unravelling viscera behind them, a shock of bloodied intestine stretching across the blue sky as if the world itself were wounded. Jiri had told Bojan some people believed that the animals reincarnated as spirits or other animals or even as people. But when Bojan hit a fellow animal he hoped he had done it a favour and relieved it of the burden of life forever. [p268-69]

            That is great literature. That is art. That is why, even if it is not his finest novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping should be penciled into everyone’s to-be-read list.

 

* I reviewed The Narrow Road to the Deep North here: https://regarp.com/2015/02/02/review-of-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/

** I reviewed Death of a River Guide here: https://regarp.com/2015/07/23/review-of-death-of-a-river-guide-by-richard-flanagan/

 

 

Review of: Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf

Breaking news that recent discoveries may push back traces of the earliest forms of life on earth to a remarkable 3.77 billion years ago brings new relevance to Cradle of Life: The Discovery of Earth’s Earliest Fossils, by J. William Schopf, a dazzling exploration of cradle of lifehow science was able to overcome substantial obstacles to look back to the very edges of the dawn of life on our planet. Schopf, professor of earth sciences at UCLA, is a paleobiologist with a long, impressive resume that includes service as NASA’s principal investigator of lunar samples during the golden age of manned moon landings. More significantly, it was Schopf himself who in 1965 was the first to discover Precambrian microfossils of prokaryotic life in stromatolitic sediments in Australia’s Apex chert dated to 3.5 billion years ago, the oldest confirmed evidence for life at the time. Because new breakthroughs in this field are rare and the science moves forward at a somewhat glacial pace, Cradle of Life–first published in 1999–remains fresh and fascinating.

If references to “prokaryotic life” and “stromatolitic sediments” sound intimidating, the reader should take some comfort in that Schopf’s fast-moving and well-written chronicle is largely accessible to the non-scientist.  At the same time, do not overlook the implied caution in “some comfort” and “largely accessible,” but neither should that serve as roadblock to his rewarding if sometimes complicated account. I frequently challenge myself to read above my level, and these forays typically orbit around science and mathematics, where my strengths in historical analysis are of little service to me.  I will long remember how humbled I was by The Particle at the End of the Universe, Sean Carroll’s brilliant exposition on the hunt for the Higgs Boson. Such books are a reminder of how smart you aren’t! I came better equipped to Schopf than to Carroll, largely because of my long self-taught study of evolution and paleontology, yet still I found myself tested as I trod through the evidence for ancient microbial life and how it functioned in an ecosystem so distant in time to us that it compels the reader to brave the contours of both science and imagination.

The earth was formed some 4.54 billion years ago, but as recently as the late nineteenth century it was believed to be only 100 million years old. Darwin, who advanced his theory of evolution before the earth’s antiquity was established, was troubled by what he viewed within that framework as the lack of requisite time for the slow process of natural selection to occur.  Later, with the age of the planet at least approximated, it yet remained rather fuzzy when organic life first appeared, today believed to be as early as 4.1 billion years ago. Until relatively recent times, it was accepted wisdom that whatever life–simple and microscopic–may have existed before the fossil-rich Cambrian Period (the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, which began 541 million years ago) left no verifiable remains.

In the opening chapters of Cradle of Life, Schopf neatly summarizes for the non-specialist the fundamentals of earth science, geology, and plate tectonics, as well as the key concepts of evolutionary biology, before moving on to recount the various attempts to locate evidence of Precambrian life.  It turns out that such traces are often ambiguous, and vestiges of life in the layered mineral record bear a striking resemblance to similar nonbiologic designs in sedimentary rock. Experts who fell victim to such errors brought disrepute to the field when shown to be mistaken, which engineered a strong resistance to authentic microfossils when these came to light.  Fortunately, for all of its wrong turns, science is self-correcting, and the bulk of this fine book relates the discovery of indisputable ancient fossil life and how that has impacted what we know about evolutionary paleobiology.

Schopf, as noted, was at the forefront of this dramatic breakthrough, which was manifested in his discovery of microfossils of cyanobacteria preserved in stromatolites–accretionary layers produced by the activities of mat-building microorganisms–in the sedimentary rock of some of the oldest pristine continental crust still extant on the planet, in northwestern Australia’s Pilbara Craton. Cyanobacteria, formerly and incorrectly tagged “blue-green algae,” are an ancient single-celled organism that, lacking a nucleus, are characterized as prokaryotes. Cyanobacteria still exist, but were of outsize significance to an early earth that was both starved for oxygen and subject to punishing UV radiation unshielded by an ozone layer that was yet to exist. Critical to the evolution of much of life as we know it, it was cyanobacteria’s pioneering strategy of oxygen-producing photosynthesis that literally created the environment suitable for the explosion of the diversity and complexity of organisms that later populated the planet.  As cyanobacteria flourished, vast quantities of oxygen were pumped into the atmosphere that not only created conditions salubrious to evolving life but led to the formation of the protective ozone layer essential to the latter’s survival. In the meantime, cyanobacteria demonstrated an astonishing level of adaptability to a whole host of habitats, a testament to how it is that this “living fossil” remains with us today.

While I see no inherent conflict between science and religion, as a self-styled “dogmatic skeptic” the evolution of life strikes me as even more wondrous and miraculous without the presence of a creator god.  Schopf underscores that every form of life on earth is linked to one another, that: “Whether large or small, living or fossil, life comes in just two varieties …” the nonnucleated single-celled prokaryotes like cyanobacteria, and the eukaryotes, which “have chromosomes packaged in a saclike nucleus.” Eukaryotes encompass both single-celled creatures as well as all of the more complex multicellular organisms–like azaleas, ants, frogs and humans–that exist on our planet. The author rhetorically chides us for our “big-organism bias” that puts frequent focus upon plants, fungi and animals–the only three branches of life that “include large, many-celled organisms,” as well as microscopic ones. [p237] Cradle of Life reminds us that the most noteworthy creatures can be those that are invisible to the naked eye. Cyanobacteria, measured in micrometers–a millionth of a meter–are not nearly as wide as a human hair. Life’s four most critical biogenic elements are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen (CHON), so the contributions of oxygen producing cyanobacteria–a microbial single-celled prokaryote–to the evolutionary processes unleashed cannot be overstated. Schopf argues that cyanobacterial oxygenic photosynthesis, and the much later innovation of eukaryotic sex that fueled genetic variation, are the two “surpassingly important” components of evolution ever devised. [p249]

While much of Schopf’s delightful book is accessible to the non-specialist, portions nevertheless present some difficulty to those outside of this field. The complexity is, however, much mitigated by photographs, illustrations, timelines and a comprehensive glossary of terms that I found most helpful. Moreover, Schopf’s prose is both articulate and engaging. While I found some of this read challenging, I came away from the work much rewarded for the effort. For those little familiar with the origins of life on earth and the line that can be drawn from that hazy ancient past to my very fingers typing out this review, Cradle of Life comes highly recommended.

Review of: Who Lost Russia?: How the World Entered a New Cold War, by Peter Conradi

There perhaps could not be a more timely and relevant book to see publication than Who Lost Russia: How the World Entered a New Cold War, by Peter Conradi.  As this review is written, friction between the United States and Russia is currently at levels not Who Lost Russia How the World Entered a New Cold Warwitnessed since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The sound of saber-rattling echoes from potential flashpoints across the globe. Russia has annexed Crimea–which resulted in loud condemnation from the West as well as crippling economic sanctions–and actively sponsors civil war in Ukraine through its support of two breakaway self-proclaimed republics, much as it has done in Georgia, another former Soviet state, but with greater vigor and less restraint.

President Vladimir Putin has remade his role as an elected official in an emerging democracy into that of an iron-fisted old-style autocrat, and seeks to refashion Russia into a key actor in the global arena once more. Relying on a toolkit that includes political and economic intimidation, misinformation campaigns and election meddling, a newly resurgent Russia is actively reasserting itself with states once part of the Soviet Union, with former allies, and in efforts directed at destabilizing the Western alliance. Russia has intervened in Syria, a traditional Soviet ally, ostensibly to fight ISIL but in fact to prop up the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, putting it at direct odds with US interests in a highly unstable region.  A new American President won the White House under a cloud of suspicion as it has become increasingly clear not only that Russia intervened in the election, but that it did so to promote Donald Trump. Twin committees in both houses of Congress are currently investigating whether there was active collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump himself seems struck with a kind of boyhood admiration of Putin and his brand of authoritarianism, which may or may not have been put to the test when he ordered a missile strike on a Syrian airbase. Russia seems unfazed, brandishing its military might, leaving spy ships lingering off the American coast, and buzzing American fighter jets. It’s almost like a flashback to the 1960s.

But, as Peter Conradi reminds us with this insightful and well-written study, it did not start off that way, and perhaps it did not have to come to this. Conradi, foreign editor of the UK’s The Sunday Times, and thus absent the bias that seems to inform the outlook of Americans from all ends of the political spectrum, revisits the collapse of the Soviet Union–which he witnessed first-hand as a foreign correspondent in Moscow–and the heady optimism that came along with it in Europe and the United States.  The world marveled at unfolding events then, cheering on first Gorbachev and then Yeltsin, as the fear of nuclear annihilation gave way to the welcoming of Russia to a community of nations predicated upon democracy and a market economy. Few in the West paid much attention as a similar, initial buoyancy within Russia itself rapidly deteriorated into a growing sense of humiliation as shell-shocked citizens came to grips with their new status. No longer a superpower, stripped of vast territories–including Ukraine and the Central Asian republics–that were historically part of Greater Russia, the dawn of democracy and capitalism brought to a much-diminished state political uncertainty and economic chaos, along with crime and corruption. It was this Russia that with a mixture of hope and shame held out its hands to a West that championed its rebirth and rewarded it with … a loan package insufficient to truly stabilize the economy, thunderous encouragement, and very little else.

In a fast-moving, highly articulate narrative that neatly blends the arts of historian and journalist, Conradi recounts events and assigns historical context that is frequently overlooked, with an eye for analysis that is largely unblemished by typical Western bias. The author underscores that it was the USSR–in its manic attempt to create fictional Soviet republics with faux autonomy within the historic Greater Russia–that encouraged secession when the Soviet Union dissolved. Ukraine had been a part of Russia for hundreds of years. So too was Crimea, which was only ceremoniously gifted to Ukraine in 1954, when it had almost no practical significance. Today Russian nationalists look upon these former territories and others as the “near abroad,” and demand to have a say in their respective destinies. These points are not made to justify recent Russian aggression, but to place them in the appropriate context, something often conspicuous in its absence in media coverage.

I noted before the advantage of Conradi as a non-American observer.  I am reminded of the distorted perspective in the United States every time a partisan or pundit acclaims Reagan for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which in fact he had little to do with. (Historian Richard Reeves credits Reagan only for insisting, against the advice of his inner circle, that Gorbachev’s reforms were genuine and that he deserved to be reckoned with. While that certainly merits significance, it hardly translates into winning the Cold War.) Conradi’s thesis, which he argues convincingly, is that it was this kind of loud triumphalism in the West, coupled with an aggressive expansion of NATO to the edges of the Russian border, that drove the relationship in the last two and a half decades to its current state of confrontation. He does not speak as an apologist of Putin and his increasing belligerence. Far from it.  He recognizes Putin as the amoral autocrat that he is, murdering or jailing rivals and opponents alike, presiding over the dismantling of democratic institutions and–as the emerging agent of realpolitik projecting power over a reasserted Russian sphere of influence–a true threat to the Western community of nations. But he also suggests that it was the various missteps by the West–and the mishandling of the fledgling new Russia that emerged from the ashes of the USSR–that set the stage for someone like Putin to seize power and sustain overwhelming support from the populace.

I am old enough to recall the terror that gripped our home during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “duck-and-cover” drills in elementary school, and the flawed domino theory that led to the tragedy of Vietnam. We all expected that Iron Curtain to define the next century, but then one day it turned out that the Soviet Union was simply one massive Potemkin Village, a fact that had somehow eluded us all along despite billions of dollars spent on intelligence gathering, and only made manifest as it imploded before our wondering eyes.  One day, unexpectedly, the USSR simply went out of business.

I watched that happen too, and what followed, through the pages of the New York Times. I recall bemoaning that such momentous historical events–the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the rise of new states from the ashes of the old Soviet Union and its dramatic aftermath–unfolded with Oval Office occupants, first George H.W. Bush and then Bill Clinton, who seemed to lack the vision to shape the future that lay ahead. Who Lost Russia appears to underscore my anecdotal observations as the author points to a series of lost opportunities under a succession of American Presidents.  He also notes that along with tone-deaf triumphalism there was a consistent, pronounced arrogance that failed to accord proper respect to Russia and its security concerns.  This was, of course, evident in the expansion of NATO to include not only former Warsaw Pact allies but also former Soviet Republics in the Baltic states, the unilateral abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and the very real possibility that what were once integral parts of Russia–Georgia, Ukraine, and especially the critically strategic Crimean Peninsula–were lining up as NATO candidates that could serve as hosts to missiles pointed at Moscow.  It was within this context that Putin acted on the Crimea.

Conradi also reminds us that initially Putin’s Russia objected but largely accepted NATO expansion.  That Putin himself offered strategic airspace as support to George W. Bush in the aftermath of 911, and did not balk when the US invaded Afghanistan, a site of the last foreign adventure of the USSR where much blood and treasure was expended.  It was only the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States that finally cut a deep fault line in Russian-American relations, as Putin branded this a calculated act of foreign aggression.  Few outside of the United States would disagree with this characterization.

Conradi goes on to objectively chronicle the failed “reset” efforts by President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, noting that Obama, like those before him, seemed plainly unaware of what really went to the heart of Russia’s concerns. The author appears to disapprove of Obama’s absence of decisive action in Syria, which no doubt signaled weakness to Putin, yet he neglects to advance an available option that would have avoided exacerbating the multiplicity of competing conflicts on the ground there. Perhaps, I would suggest, doing nothing is better than decisively doing the wrong thing.

It is disconcerting that an unschooled and unpredictable man now sits in the White House as the prospect of nuclear war again looms before us. Conradi’s account of the wrong turns taken by his better qualified predecessors leaves us little room for optimism. Who Lost Russia is a brilliant book that should be required reading for those who have the current President’s ear. Our only opportunity to offset disaster is to carefully review what has once again set us on the brink.

[Note: I read an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) of this book as part of an early reviewer’s program, but the book is hot off the press as of April 11, 2017. Buy it and read it!]

 

Review of: Across the River and into the Trees, by Ernest Hemingway

While browsing a used bookstore, it was with no little surprise that I came across a novel by Ernest Hemingway published during his lifetime that I had never read. Hemingway’s fiction cut a deep groove in me as a young man, so it was fitting that I spent the weekend across the rivof my sixtieth birthday reading Across the River and into the Trees cover to cover. The author was not even two years older than that when he took his own life in 1961, but he was already an old man in so many ways. Indeed, it might be fair to suggest that as an artist he had aged, long before his time, even a decade prior when he penned this work.

I consider Hemingway not only one of the finest novelists of the twentieth century, but also one of the greatest American writers of all time, among a distinguished handful that includes Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner. I would put Hemingway a notch beneath Twain, but perhaps controversially a notch or two above Melville. To my mind, his novels A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls rank at the very top of the American literary tradition.  I was never a fan of African big-game hunting or the Spanish bullfighting tradition, but Hemingway’s respective nonfiction treatments of these in The Green Hills of Africa and Death in the Afternoon are not only great reads but are almost without parallel in his unique marriage of memoir and literature. And then there are the many superlative stories and vignette scraps collected in the original Scribner edition of The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.  Finally, there is the critically acclaimed The Old Man and the Sea; I never thought it as worthy as that which preceded it, but it was nevertheless art, even if perhaps lesser art than came before.

In contrast, Across the River and into the Trees falls far short. The book’s title is a paraphrase of the final words reportedly uttered in delirium by the dying Confederate General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and to some degree the novel sounds a kind of death knell of its own. It was the last full-length work before The Old Man and the Sea, the 1952 novella that revitalized his reputation but yet was the last thing he turned out before his death.  He had by then left his peak as an artist to another era. Like Elvis Presley, Ernest Hemingway lived long enough to become a kind of caricature of himself and not long enough to step beyond that which, like Elvis, diminished his talent. After a while Hemingway-the-author and Hemingway-the-man became conflated, not only to his audience but to Hemingway himself. Thus, like Hemingway-the-man, the characters Hemingway-the-author crafted later in life became less authentic.

So it is with Richard Cantwell–known throughout much of the narrative simply as “the Colonel”–the gratuitously self-indulgent protagonist of Across the River and into the Trees, who comes across strikingly as Hemingway-the-man as he imagined himself to be, and then further idealized in this fictional characterization. The Colonel is fifty-one, not without coincidence the same age as his creator, and like him has vivid recollections of Italy in the Great War.  Once a general but demoted for some military debacle in the Second World War, Colonel Cantwell is in Venice five years after the war’s end visiting his unlikely girlfriend, a beautiful nineteen year old wealthy aristocrat he calls “Daughter” and with whom he carries on a not entirely platonic relationship that is also never entirely consummated. More significantly, the Colonel is dying of some unspecified heart ailment, and is making a conspicuous effort to meet his end graciously and heroically.  All of this is thrust before the reader with little art or subtlety.

Aficionados of Hemingway will often point to his spare prose, his crisp dialogue, and his use of the objective correlative–a literary device that evokes emotion in description of an inanimate object. Much of these trademarks are absent in this novel. The short sentences lack the “punch” found in his other works. The symbolism is facile, even superficial. And while most of the entire book takes the form of dialogue, it is only as a clumsy platform for the Colonel to ponder aloud and pontificate. The writing is often lazy in both style and technique: the novel is almost entirely related from the Colonel’s point of view, but briefly and awkwardly slips into omniscience when convenient. Worse, it is artificial.  As Hemingway struggles to remember the young man in the first war and to craft the older dying man after the second war, he turns his character into his own mixed metaphor, a tough guy with a hard edge and a quick fist, yet also a polished intellectual who feasts on only the finest food and wine and literature and women, all this while basking in cynicism and disillusionment yet striving to confront his mortality with his signature grace under pressure motif.  At the same time, the author’s literary doppelganger–like the real-life Hemingway–can be rude, abusive and act the bully when it suits him. Hemingway, a master of authenticity, has managed to construct a mostly inauthentic character.

But then, just as the reader is about to dismiss this work for all of its many flaws, the unique Hemingway “voice” comes through unexpectedly in a single passage and it grips you so powerfully that you are at once willing to forgive all of its other literary sins:

We met a truck at this place and slowed up, and he had the usual gray face and he said, “Sir, there is a dead GI in the middle of the road up ahead, and every time any vehicle goes through they have to run over him, and I’m afraid it is making a bad impression on the troops.”

“We’ll get him off the road.”

So we got him off the road.

And I can remember just how he felt, lifting him, and how he had been flattened and the strangeness of his flatness. [p256-57]

Reading this at sixty I was struck with the same force that I was at sixteen. It is why we read Hemingway.  It is why I read Hemingway. When I finished the book, a friend asked what I thought of it.  I said: “It’s not the best Hemingway, but it is Hemingway and therefore it is the best.”

Review of: Atlas of Slavery, by James Walvin

An atlas is typically a go-to reference rather than a cover-to-cover read, but there are rare exceptions, such as the Atlas of Slavery, by James Walvin, which turned out to be so notable for both its maps and accompanying narrative that I carefully read and studied every page. Atlas of SlaveryMy interests lean decidedly towards the American Civil War as well as the antebellum African-American experience; Walvin’s fine treatment neatly dovetailed with each of these. Moreover, the skilled graphical treatment in this work both adds perspective and enhances comprehension on a macro level.

My ongoing complaint with many books of history is a dearth of good maps or sometimes any maps at all. It can be maddening to read about key events in an unfamiliar geography without a suitable visual frame of reference. One way to mitigate this frustration is to assemble your own collection.  And I have: I own a podium-sized atlas stand and its one great shelf is mostly stocked with historical atlases, which as a category generously spills over to other adjacencies. The atlas genre, of large and small formats, tends to fall into three categories. The first is the traditional book of reference maps, with little or no accompanying text.  The second features maps and an abbreviated, complementary text. The third is an atlas in which the maps and the text are integral to one another. The latter is the case with Atlas of Slavery, a smaller format trade paper volume featuring a highly informative, well-written narrative as well as finely detailed black-and-white maps that serve as an essential foundation to the author’s account.

While Atlas of Slavery sets the stage with an overview of slavery in the ancient world, the focus of the book is on the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the millions of Africans swept up in it, as well as the Europeans who exploited their labor. The author correctly identifies the African slavery made manifest by that trade as entirely distinct from human chattel slavery as it existed elsewhere in time and geography. Slavery for life based solely upon race and color which extended to subsequent generations was something very different from that which preceded it.  Most welcome here is both a textual and graphical exploration of the political entities of Africa and how the traditional slavery of Africa and the Arab world was radically transformed by European demand.  The racist and the ignorant have been known to feebly defend the institution of African slavery by declaring that: “They sold their own people.” Walvin soundly corrects this flawed assertion by pointing out that “The concept of being an African had no meaning for the people involved. The terms African and Africa were European terms … Africans felt no more uneasy about enslaving other Africans, from different cultures, then European traders felt uneasy when buying Africans on the coast.” [p57] In other words, people from different tribes or different kingdoms on the African continent had as little in common with each other as citizens of England and France had in that same era.

At the same time, the author unflinchingly underscores how the dramatic increase in demand by Europeans fueled a rapid expansion in the aggressive procurement of slaves from wider environs and their subsequent transport to the west coast of Africa for sale. Prior to 1700, gold and other commodities made up the bulk of African exports, before human beings became the dominant currency. This change was primarily driven by the explosive growth of the highly profitable but labor-intensive sugar cultivation in the Americas, where there happened to be a shortage of cheap labor. Not only did the pathogens unleashed in the Columbian Experience decimate indigenous populations in the New World, but the Roman Catholic church had officially proscribed enslaving the natives.  At the same time, disease and climate in Africa proved a death trap for Europeans, making sugar cultivation there untenable.  The confluence of these factors generated a perfect storm for those helpless victims brutally forced into the holds of slave ships bound for the Middle Passage and destined for an uncertain future in faraway lands where they were often literally worked to death on sugar plantations.

Walvin, Professor of History Emeritus at University of York, has written extensively on slavery and the slave trade and thus brings an expertise to the task often lacking by those who treat slavery on the periphery of related studies. The reward for the reader is a number of insights that probe frequently overlooked aspects of the institution, especially as it later developed in North America.  Historians have long noted the bitter resistance of African-Americans in the nineteenth century to schemes that would “colonize” them back to Africa. While their ancestors may have been cruelly stolen from the African continent, these descendants, slave and free, identified with America rather than a foreign land on the other side of the Atlantic. According to Walvin, the origin of this sense of identity can be traced to specific circumstances:

Until the 1720s, the black population in North America grew via imported Africans. Thereafter, it began to increase naturally rather than via the Atlantic slave trade. The consequences of the diminishing importance of the Atlantic slave trade on North America were enormous. Africa and its multitude of cultures receded as a demographic force in the lives of local slaves: there were fewer and fewer Africans in slave communities. This had the effect of inevitably reducing the cultural influence of Africa … [p 100]

Likewise, the author connects the development of slavery in colonial North America to its post-Revolution evolution into the essential building block of the southern cotton plantation economy:

When the American colonies broke away from Britain in 1776, they took with them half a million blacks; by 1810, that had increased to 1.4 million, overwhelmingly in the old South. It was this established American slave population that was to make possible the development of the enslaved cotton revolution of the nineteenth century and the consequent westward movement of slavery from the former colonies to the new cotton frontier. When cotton thrived in the new states of the South and the frontier in the nineteenth century, the new cotton plantations turned for their labour not to Africa but to the slave populations of the old slave systems on the east coast . . . In the process, slavery was thus transformed from a British colonial institution into a critical element in the early growth and expansion of the infant republic. The slavery of British colonial North America gave birth to slavery in the USA.  [p107]

Walvin’s often brilliant analyses frequently point to ironies and unintended consequences.  One is that while “. . . the forms of slavery that Europeans created in the Americas proved to be among the most hostile and repressive in recorded history . . . [t]he paradox remains that Europe saw the gradual securing of individual rights to ever more people in Europe at the very same time that Europeans expanded and intensified slavery across vast tracts of the Americas.” [p15] Another is that the majority of those ripped away from their homelands and shipped to the Americas as property came via British ships, yet it was the later conscience-driven dedication to abolition in England that eventually not only shut down the Atlantic slave trade but also sparked a multinational movement towards emancipation. [p121-23]

There is a great deal more. In fact, more than enough to encourage others with interest in this topic to find this book and devour it with relish the way I did. Of course, something should also be said of the wealth of superlative maps included here—there are eight-seven of them—all derived from a variety of historical atlases and other sources, which as previously noted are absolutely integral to the narrative. For all of his achievements, Walvin’s otherwise magnificent book is not without a couple of glaring flaws, one of fact and the other of interpretation.  The first is his claim that slaves built the pyramids of ancient Egypt, [p16] which historians know was not the case. The other is his contention, repeated more than once, [p110, p124] that the American Civil War was not caused by slavery.  In fact, the scholarly consensus is that slavery was indeed the central cause of southern secession and the war that act triggered. Still, there are few such imperfections. Much of this fine book begs for readers seeking a deeper perspective of this unique variation of human chattel slavery that tragically proved to be the very foundation for economic development of the modern western world.

Review of: Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, by Robert Strauss

Worst. Biography. Ever.

Perhaps that seems overly harsh, but Worst. President. Ever.: James Buchanan, the POTUS Rating Game, and the Legacy of the Least of the Lesser Presidents, by Robert Strauss, is not only worst president evermore poorly constructed than its awkwardly convoluted title, but it features some of the most abysmal writing that I have come across in years.  I really hate to write bad reviews, but this is truly a very bad book, on so many levels.  Even poor James Buchanan, worst president or not, deserves better than this.

Historians have been rating former presidents for some time. The top three are fairly consistent, with Washington and Lincoln typically jockeying for first place and FDR coming in third.  The bottom three tends to vary from one list to another, but Buchanan is almost invariably ranked dead last, with sometimes strong competition from Warren G. Harding, Andrew Johnson, and more recently, George W. Bush. Buchanan, known in the parlance of the time as a “doughface” for his Southern sympathies, was an otherwise unexceptional career politician who waited his turn for the White House but had the bad fortune to win election as the country was coming apart over slavery.  Unfortunately, he seemed to lack both the vision and the conviction to act constructively to mitigate the looming crisis, instead putting the weight of his office on the wrong side of explosive issues such as the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, as well as the effort by pro-slavery partisans to foist the illegitimate Lecompton Constitution upon Kansas territory, where a bloody prequel to the Civil War was raging.  A staunch Unionist but also a strict Constitutional constructionist, Buchanan seemed paralyzed by inaction as secession unfolded in the months between the election and inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, which then occurred in March rather than January. It was Buchanan’s failure to act during that long interregnum that consigns him to last place by most historians who compile such rankings.

Strauss’ book was released during the tumultuous 2016 election season, which made it seem all the more relevant. Buchanan, not a popular subject, has not had many biographers. While I know much about his tenure from other works on the antebellum period, I had never read his biography. But I have read more than two dozen biographies of American presidents, written for both scholarly and popular audiences. Some were masterful, some ponderous, some insightful, and still others unremarkable. I have read Flexner, Ellis, Meacham, McCullough, Donald, Remini, Dallek, Reeves, Caro and many more. The best products of this genre not only chronicle the life of its subject but adroitly explore the era when he walked the earth, revealing the complexity and nuance of people and events that a careful historian brings to a studied analysis. Unfortunately, all of that is conspicuous in its absence in Worst. President. Ever.  This is especially regrettable because a quality, balanced treatment of Buchanan would be a welcome addition to the historiography.

Instead, the narrative is choppy and superficial, and offers almost no thoughtful analysis.  Rife with clichés and clumsy metaphors, the author’s voice utterly lacks authority. The entire book is delivered in an idiomatic, conversational tone, as if it was related by a random person sitting on the barstool next to you. While the style, if we can call it that, is suitable to a tavern milieu, it has absolutely no place in a serious work of history.  And the writing is bad. Really bad. More than once I found myself flipping to the back flap of the dustjacket to confirm the author’s résumé, which apparently includes reporting for the Washington Post and Sports Illustrated—and teaching a non-fiction writing class at the University of Pennsylvania!  I rarely include multiple excerpts from a book in reviews, but I am going to make an exception here, for unless you read such excerpts you may judge me harshly for my harsh judgments!  So here we go:

On the economic panic of 1857: “By midsummer no one could take a ride on the Reading, as Uncle Pennybags does in the Monopoly game, since it had shut down…” [p160]

Regarding Andrew Jackson’s accession to the presidency: “He was a general and loved being in charge. Further, he was miffed about how the previous election had come out, with Adams and Clay back-door dealing, which he presumed meant they thought of him not smart enough to be the big boss.” [p75]

On the nominating process for the election of 1852: “With Polk bowing out … Buchanan again figured he was deserving of the nomination. His scheme was the usual … say little controversial, and then proclaim: ‘Aw, shucks, well, OK…'” [p110]

Strauss frequently makes broad, simplistic statements about critical historical events that simply made me wince.  As in:

On the great issue of slavery: “Most Northerners let the issue ride. They might’ve been against slavery personally, but like a tic a neighbor might have that they shrugged their shoulders about, they tolerated slavery for the places where it already existed . . . [p115] And: “Still, much like the Southeastern Conference against the Big Ten in football today, whatever helps the ‘team’ got strong support from all concerned … So slavery became the chicken, not just the egg.” [p133]

Clichés abound, and there are many more wild and weird analogies between Buchanan’s time and ours, as well, such as:

On Buchanan’s relationship with James K. Polk: “The office of secretary of state was different then than in the twentieth century and beyond. There was no jetting off to seventy-five countries a year and meeting with statesmen every week.” [p107]

On Jesse Benton Fremont, wife of John C. Fremont: “Like Kris Kardashian, whose fame started when she began to burnish the reputation of her Olympian husband Bruce Jenner … Jesse Benton, knowing the way of politics from her father, saw that kind of legend in her husband … She was unafraid of what might seem like a dicey past.” [p127] And on a campaign song that pays tribute to her: “It does not seem likely that calling, say, Michelle Obama or Laura Bush —or even Sarah Palin—’the flower of the land’ would’ve made it in the feminist twenty-first century, but the song does show what a celebrity Jesse Fremont had become…” [p147]

Sadly, there is much, much more of these painful passages, interspersed with occasional odd tangents about the author’s various field trips and what sparked his interest in history. Surprisingly, despite the book’s subtitle, there is precious little analysis of what actually constitutes bad ratings for presidents and why Buchanan is at the bottom, although there are hints throughout, as in a discussion of the Dred Scott case that asserts: “… James Buchanan would find his way to intercede in it—and on that intercession, get quickly as he could on the road to becoming the Worst. President. Ever.” [p149] There is finally a brief chapter that runs down the list of troubled presidencies and makes a poor attempt at appropriate evaluation, which can only be properly summarized by still another excerpt:

“Andrew Johnson was no prize as a president, but he did keep the country from buckling after the Civil War… Johnson was impeached because of his policies … and survived being shown the door by just one Senate vote.” [p167] And “…though he really blew it with Kansas-Nebraska, Pierce at least advocated that the Union was paramount … Pierce was no prize but he kept the United States intact …” Only then does Strauss pass judgment: “Buchanan, then, takes that prize. Though he had some positives, they were primarily social and short-lived. He was not an evil man personally and had a partying spirit when it came time for that, but even there, he could not bring himself to be even a mediocre administrator.” [p174]

I am sure that this review will find critics among those who appreciate Strauss’ chaotic, bantering style, but I am even more certain that few who would defend this work are serious students of American history. Was Buchanan really the worst president ever?  Do not look to this book to find out.