Thursday, 31 May 2012

THE QUIET AMERICAN by Graham Greene


This is the story of a British journalist, sent to Vietnam in the 1950s to cover the violence there, who slowly comes to regard Vietnam as his home.

There are sections which are truly lovely, and make it obvious why this is regarded by many as a classic of the twentieth century. Here is the journalist on his time in Vietnam:
When I first came I counted the days of my assignment, like a schoolboy marking off the days of term; I thought I was tied to what was left of a Bloomsbury square and the 73 bus passing the portico of Euston and springtime in the local in Torrington Place. Now the bulbs would be out in the square garden, and I didn't care a damn.
As someone who lived in London for many years, and indeed on the route of the 73, I'm oddly touched by his mourning for that city.

Here also is a lovely vision of the life he left back in London (his marriage collapsed just before he moved) through the lens of his night editor:
The editor would joke to the night-editor, who would take the envious thought back to his semi-detached villa in Streatham and climb into bed with it beside the faithful wife he had carried with him years back from Glasgow. I could see so well the kind of house that has no mercy - a broken tricycle stood in the hall and somebody had broken his favourite pipe; and there was a child's shirt in the living-room waiting for a button to be sewn on.
The kind of house that has no mercy!

The plot of the novel revolves around this journalist having his Vietnamese girlfriend stolen by an idealistic American, who is involved in some decidedly idealistic espionage. It is around questions of plot that this novel gets a little dodgy. First, the Vietnamese girlfriend is a really horrible stereotype, so it makes it hard to care who gets her. I know I am terribly sophisticated and supposed to be able to look past the general misogyny to the author underneath, but this 'childlike' 'silent' 'unfeeling' girlfriend just defeated me.

We are also on less sure ground when it comes to his attempts to describe the war in Vietnam. At one point he comes across two dead civilians - mother and son. Now, I'd defy any narrator to comment on this in a way that could make one laugh, but how dire is this:
He was wearing a holy medal round his neck, and I said to myself, "The juju doesn't work." There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, "I hate war."
Oh dear! We were definitely on safer ground with London.


Wednesday, 30 May 2012

A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens


I know other people may have mentioned this previously, but A CHRISTMAS CAROL is really a fantastic novel.

First, there is the linguistic vigour, which just kills me. Here is Scrooge's house:
They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten its way out again.
Here is Scrooge's assessment of his house:
Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.
Then there is the comedy. Here's Bob Cratchit:
Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.
And here's Scrooge's response to the ghost of his old partner Marley, denying its existence:
You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than the grave about you, whatever you are!
But overall I think it is the warm-hearted morality that makes this book remarkable. Here is a lovely image of Bob Cratchit going home on Christmas Eve, after a miserable day at Scrooge's offices:
The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk . . went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas Eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman's-bluff.
Here's the ghosts Scrooge sees through the window
Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.
Not mentioning any names, but I love this idea, a partner to my general hope that there is a hell so certain people now in power can burn it.
And then of course there is the wonderful change to Scrooge, that gives this novel a sense of completion and closure rare in fiction. Here he is Christmas morning:
Shaving was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you don't dance while you are at it.
I'd heard before that Dickens 'invented Christmas, but I never quite believed it till this book inspired me to do a bit of googling. It's strange to think now, but apparently Christmas was beginning to be forgotten as a holiday before he put his giant Victorian energy to it. It is to him we owe the idea of a snowy Christmas (the first eight years of his life were white Christmases), to him we owe the idea of turkey, of Christmas pudding, of goodwill to all men.

Seriously, he should have organised to get a percentage on all of the above, which is now regularly sold to us. He'd be minting it.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

THE GUN by CJ Chivers


This book is a history of the AK-47, and thus essentially a history of war for the last century. It makes for depressing but enlightening reading.

We begin in the nineteenth century, with Richard Gatling finally managing to create the world's first workable automatic weapon. So much more deadly was any one gun than a platoon of rifles, that he, and many like him, genuinely believed that it would effectively end war, as no one would be insane enough to send men marching against it.

The gun is first used against people in Africa and Asia, as part of the colonial project. Lobengula's whole army is effectively wiped out in five hours, as later is the Mahdi's army. One wonders how different the world would look if Gatling had been just a little slower off the mark, and the British had had to face the Ndebele nation with just bayonets.

Despite the first hand experience the British had with the kind of death the machine gun could mete out, they were appallingly unprepared when the First World War broke out. They didn't let a little thing like automatic machine gun fire stand in the way of their time honoured traditions: advancing in solid blocks, in bright clothing, with bayonets. “The English came walking, as though they were going to the theatre or as though they were on parade ground,” one German soldier said. “We felt they were mad.” This might have been understandable for the first couple of days, say, but the British kept this up for the first TWO YEARS OF THE WAR. Even after the Battle of the Somme, when 30,000 British soldier were killed or wounded in the first SIXTY MINUTES. The commanders, far back from the front lines, just weren't willing to give up on their idea of glorious war and the terrifying bayonet. It's interesting really how idealistic military people are.

The AK-47 (which stands for Automatic designed by Kalishnikov in 1947) was designed in answer to a competition in the Soviet Union, and was rightly selected as the winner not so much because of its accuracy, as because of its durability and ease of use. So simple and sturdy is the AK-47 that it can stand the worst of conditions, and be assembled and disassembled by a child. As the LRA will tell you.

One of the first major outings for the AK-47 was the Vietnam War. Here a major power found out what it was like to face an armed native population, and one that was armed better than they were themselves. As so much of what the Soviet Union produced in the way of shoes and elevators was crap, the US assumed its guns would be too, and only gave the AK-47 the most preliminary of glances, categorizing it, embarrassingly, simply as NIH: Not Invented Here. US troops were sent out to fight with M-14s and M-16s, which while they might have been invented here also tended to jam horribly after a few rounds, and rust immediately in the swamps of Vietnam. Here again we see the romance of the military man: so in love was the American high command with the ideal of the John Wayne sharp shooter that they entirely ignored the fact that in jungle war you virtually never actually even see your opponent, and thus do more praying than aiming when you shoot.

It is the world's misfortune that the AK-47 was first produced in a planned economy, because that meant that guns could be produced way beyond any imaginable need. At one point there was one particular factory in the USSR producing 12,000 AKs a day. That's 50 tons of steel a day. So durable is the AK, that these weapons are still with us - AKs from as far back as 1953 show up in Afghanistan today. In an old salt mine in the Ukraine, for example, in the 1990s, there were some three million guns stockpiled. Less what some horrible man from Croatia shipped to Uganda for use by Joseph Kony. One almost hopes there is a hell, so they can both burn in it. (On that subject: wow, Kony is crazy. Apparently his army used to march into battle chanting “James Bond! James Bond!” and covered in gun-repelling shea butter).

So an interesting if very sad book. Sometimes its a bit naively American, with sudden burst of discussion of the Second Amendment for no reason, and weird judgements. At one point, for example, he writes with shock about the first time an AK-47 is used by an ordinary citizen. In Hungary, someone shoots a secret policeman on the street and Chivers takes it for granted that this is a terrible thing to have done. I can only say, whatever. Not everyone needs a trial. Also, there are some factual issues: eg, apparently the flag of Zimbabwe has an AK-47 on it. Surely even the briefest fact check would have caught that?

Whatever, it's a great book, and there are 100 million AKs in the world today, which won't be disintegrating till long after we're all dead, so we better care.

Friday, 11 May 2012

AN EDUCATION by Lynn Barber


Lynn Barber is a fun old battleaxe and her book is an entertaining read. The movie, which follows her affair as a school girl with an older con man, really covers only the first two chapters of the book. The remainder follows her life up to the present, and is undoubtedly an education in what it meant to be born female in the 1940s.

Horrifyingly, for example, when the older con man asks her to marry him, right after high school, her parents encourage her to do so even though this apparently means that she must give up her place at Oxford. Apparently the logic is that if you are married you don't need to go to university. The poor deluded girl agrees, but luckily for her the conman is revealed to be already married, so she is allowed a tertiary education.

On the plus side, they haven't yet heard of HIV, so she tells us “I probably slept with about fifty men in my second year.” This sounds fun, but then “there was no afterwards, either because the sex was a disaster, or because my pretence of sexual confidence scared them off. I did great, noisy, pretend orgasms with lots of “Yes! Yes!” . . .But I still hadn't experienced the real thing.”

She begins to have some success as a journalist, despite the idea - apparently prevalent at the time - that women graduates ought to work their way up from secretary. Touchingly, she falls in love with her husband at first sight, and stays married to him till his death. The last long section while he is mortally ill in hospital is really moving. Barber is brutally honest about what she perceives as her failures during this period – she became annoyed with her sick husband, tried to avoid him, and so on. It's a testament to the fact that neither grief nor love are orderly or as we expect, which I found comforting.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A PASSAGE TO INDIA by EM Forster


Mrs Moore travels out to India to visit her son Ronny, bringing with her a potential wife, an idealistic young woman named Adela. The two ladies are rather shocked by the insularity of the British in India, and insist on being allowed to meet 'real' Indians. Their follows an entertaining comedy of manners, where we learn something about how difficult it is to bridge cultures in any direction, no matter how good the intentions.

Forster has a delightful lightness of touch, and creates a believable little world of Anglo-India. Here's a description of a teacher:
His career, though scholastic, was varied, and had included going to the bad and repenting thereafter.

The novel then takes an abrupt left turn. Adela is taken to see some local caves by Dr Aziz, an Indian doctor. Adela abruptly rushes back to town, and when Dr Aziz follows her, he finds out that she has accused him of 'insulting' her in the dark. Everyone makes such a big deal of this that for a while I thought she had been raped, but in fact it just meant a little light groping. The case becomes a flashpoint between British and Indian, SPOILER ALERT, until at the last minute, on the stand, Adela recants.

Bizarrely, this last section of the novel is no longer a political or social commentary, but apparently a meditation on religion. I know. What? I can't really explain, as I started skimming after a while. This was a lot of blithering about how ancient the land of India is, and about the ferocity and fear of the eternal, and about the endless echo of the caves. Take this:
“Everything echoes now; there's no stopping the echo. The original sound may be harmless, but the echo is always evil”
This I find to mean exactly nothing. And there's pages of this sort of thing. There's also abrupt and lengthy descriptions of Indian religious rituals.

Let's end on an interesting note. Here's a part where he actually says something interesting about spirituality. Mrs Moore dies on her way back to Britain, and these are Ronny's reflection:
What does happen when ones mother dies? Presumably she goes to heaven, anyhow she clears out. Ronny's religion was of the sterilized public-school brand, which never goes bad, even in the tropics. Wherever he entered, mosque, cave or temple, he retained the spiritual outlook of the Fifth Form, and condemned as 'weakening' any attempt to understand them.