Category Archives: Books and reading

For the Joy of Reading: That Was a Shiver

This is a difficult book.   By that, I do not mean that it is not worthwhile.   That is precisely what it is: worthwhile.   It is simply that James Kelman demands that you should stop and think about what he has written.   This is a book about the confusion of human life.   For instance, at the moment I know precisely what I mean by that last sentence.   You, however, will probably think that I mean something else.   And a third-party reading it will probably have another, completely separate idea of what “the confusion of human life” actually means.   That is at the heart of these stories: the “noise” between what we think we have said and what other people think we have said.   In these stories, that is especially the case between men and women.

These are also stories about what it is to be a man.   The title story “That was a Shiver” sets this out for us in a bleak manner.   Robert and Tracy, a Glasgow couple, are going out shopping in the Barras, the covered market, on a Sunday.   They are not young any more, but they certainly are not old and decrepit.   They go their separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch.   We follow Robert.   He is quite comfortable, mooching around.   Then you learn things about him.   He does not like carrying bags in case he has to use his fists.   He was in the army, where he became a champion boxer.   Then he was in prison.   He thinks of himself as a hard man, but realises he is not as hard as he was.   He is fearful of young men because he is not as hard as he was.   But he is defiant.   He is willing to take on all comers.   He may not be as articulate as a Shakespearean tragic hero, but the meaning of what he is saying cannot be doubted.   He is belligerent.   He swears a lot.   He is in your face.

It should be said at this point that if you are uncomfortable with the use of “bad” language, then this is not the book for you.   Robert talks in the language of ordinary working men in Glasgow.   If you do not like it, then this is definitely not the book for you.

When I say that you cannot mistake his meaning, I mean that you cannot mistake the aggression.   He is an alpha male facing down younger rivals.   He is nostalgic for his younger self, and recognises that he is not the man that he was when he was younger.   He is uncertain.   To me, his aggression is a cover for his fear, but it might be that this behaviour has become engrained in him.   It may be that he behaves like this because it is a survival strategy learned over the years.   It may be both.   Who knows?   Certainly not me.

These stories have a theme of a man dealing with the contradictions and uncertainties of life.   They deal with male insecurities whether they are about sex, status, strength, money – a man’s place in the world.   They are about the nature of manhood.   They are brilliant.   You should read them.

 

Advertisements

For the Joy of Reading: Dare Not Linger

This is the long-awaited second volume of the autobiography of Nelson Mandela.   It has been put together from what he had written before his death, and from his notes.   It has been edited with great skill, devotion and commitment by Mandla Langa, the author of “Lost Colours of the Chameleon” and a number of other books.   Here, I have to confess that Mandla Langa has been my friend for more than thirty years, since he came into exile in the UK following the Soweto Uprising of 1976.   During that time, Mandla took a leading role in the cultural activities of the ANC, and I was one of the chair-people of the London Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.   The first time that I met Nelson Mandela was, with Mandla and others, at Madame Toussaud’s in London when his waxwork was being unveiled.   So that is my colours nailed to the mast.   As someone who was closely involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and in some of the events described in the book, I cannot be described as a neutral observer.

This book approaches those events of the 1994 first democratic elections in South Africa and the first few years of the transition process from the perspective of Nelson Mandela.   That is what makes the book fascinating.   Nowadays, people regard it as some kind of miracle that Mandela was able, during his Presidency, to end the years of conflict in South Africa.   It was not.   It was the result of very hard work and of a deep political understanding of what needed to be done.   It was Nelson Mandela who did that.    This book is an analysis of that process, of the threats, the dangers, the angers and resentments that had to be negotiated so that South Africa did not descend into civil war.   It describes, from the inside, what was a remarkable achievement.   But it was not a miracle.   It did not come out of the blue.   It came about because Nelson Mandela understood what had to be done, and then found ways of achieving it.

The first threat came from those who did not want to participate in the election or who were pretending that they did not wish to participate in order to gain an electoral advantage.   The threats came from the extreme white right wing and from Chief Mangosuthu (known as Gatsha) Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party.   Neither threat was negligible – they could have led to civil war.   It needed Nelson Mandela to exercise a great deal of skill and patience to neutralise them.

It was Mandela who steered South Africa through the Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging (AWB) attack on the negotiators at the Conference for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), the massacres at Bisho and Boipatong, the assassination of Chris Hani, the AWB attack on Bophuthatswana and a host of other events.   It was Mandela who persuaded General Constand Viljoen of the Freedom Front that his organisation should register to take part in the election.   It was Mandela who contacted Buthelezi and, despite opposition from recalcitrant in the ANC, such as Harry Gwala, set about asking the Inkatha Freedom Party to join the elections.   At many times, and especially following the murder of Chris Hani, South Africa was on the brink of a civil war.   It was Mandela who avoided all these disasters.   It was his leadership that made the difference.   To find out how, you must read the book.

Of course, Mandela did not achieve any of this on his own.   There were many people who assisted him.   There were many more who were persuaded by him.   There were some, like Robert Van Tonder and Boere Weerstand Beweging, who refused to be persuaded but they were few and far between.   Fortunately, Mandela was able to neutralise them, but not enough to prevent them killing people with the bombs that they exploded during the election campaigning and on the election days themselves.   Of course, it was a collective effort but it was Mandela who provided the leadership.    That is now generally acknowledged.   That is part of the story of this book.

Nor did the danger pass with the election.    I distinctly remember standing there in South Africa House in London on 10th May 1994, wondering whether the South African Air Force would strafe the guests at the Presidential inauguration.   That this did not happen was partly because my imagination was over-active but also partly because Mandela had convinced the generals to give the new South Africa a chance to survive.    There was a huge effort that had to be put into nation-building, and this is what Mandela made the theme of his Presidency.   He made huge efforts at nation-building, in creating a constitution, in establishing the role of Parliament, in establishing the role of the traditional leaders in a democracy, and in transforming the state.

These are the themes of the chapters that take up the tale following Mandela’s swearing-in as President.   Most important, however, was the theme of reconciliation.   Mandela however was careful not to let people off the hook.   He was the driving force behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.   He made it necessary for apartheid officials to state clearly what they had done before they could be granted amnesty.   It was difficult.   There were people who refused to apply to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because they knew that any evidence against them had been destroyed.    There were people who did not believe in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission because they wanted the perpetrators to be prosecuted and go to prison.   Mandela recognised that this was not going to happen because the burden of proof was on the prosecution.   He sought a way in which the relatives of victims could find out what happened to their loved ones.   It proved to be cathartic.   There were some, like Craig Williamson, who were not penitent, but the recognition of the grief of so many did help the healing process, or, at least, that is the argument that Mandela would have put forward.

The last chapter is about Mandela on the African and the World Stage.   Mandela served as an honest broker for his continent.   He was able to help resolve the difficulties in countries such as Rwanda and Zaire.   He was able to resolve issues like the prosecution in relation to the Lockerbie bombing.   He was feted throughout the world.   My particular memory was of Mandela’s State Visit to London in 1996, where he not only spoke to both Houses of Parliament but visited the black community in Brixton.

This book is about the contribution that Mandela made during his Presidency to the healing of the wounds caused by apartheid.   It is a book about the contribution of one man.   He was not a saint.   He made mistakes, which are discussed in this book and which he himself recognised.   It is an important book because it discusses how an icon dealt with the issues in front of him.   It discusses how he became an icon.   It is a clear assessment, based on the writings of the man himself, about the contribution that he made.

For that reason it is astonishing, and that is why you should read it.

 

For the Joy of Reading: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Where to begin?   This is, I suppose, a story about survival, except of course in the long term we do not survive.   Anjun does survive.   S/he is a Hijra and the Hijra life is all about survival.   Dr. Azad Bhartiya does survive and he is a hunger striker.   Khadija does survive and she is a guerrilla fighter.   Tilo survives and becomes a teacher.   But so many do not survive.   Miss Jebeen the first does not survive and neither do her parents.   They are killed.   Amrik Singh does not survive, and nor does his wife or his three sons.   He kills his family and then commits suicide.   Some die of natural causes.   Some are murdered.   That is the nature of war.

And this story is about a war: the war in Kashmir.   It is a dreadful war.   It has been fought, on and off, since the partition of the Indian sub-continent seventy years ago.   Arundhati Roy, however, is quite specific.   This is not just about the war in Kashmir.   It is about the war, as she describes it, of the rich on the poor.   It is about Union Carbide and the disaster at Bhopal.   It is about the mining companies driving indigenous people out of the forests.   It is a war about the confrontations between ideologies and religions.

It is hardly surprising that an environmental campaigner of more than twenty years would take such a view.   Nor is it surprising that an anti-apartheid campaigner, as I am, would not be disturbed by it.   It is a view, however, that many people will be uncomfortable with, and will find upsetting if not downright objectionable.   It is something that the reader has to deal with if that person is going to enjoy this book.

Another factor that a reader from the western world may find difficult is that this is a book that is firmly embedded in Indian culture.   And I mean, very specifically, not the culture of the Indian takeaway, but the culture of India.   The opening chapters of this story are set in the Hijra community.   Hijra are transvestites, transgender and even hermaphrodites.   They do not really fit any understanding that westerners would have of such words.   Their presence at weddings for instance is thought to be a blessing.   This is not something that we in the West can really understand.

There is a great deal in this book about the Mughal and pre-Mughal cultures of India, about Urdu poetry and about the stories of India.   [The Urdu poetry thankfully is translated].

So why would you read this book?   Because it is a beautiful story, told with a great deal of passion.   Because you will like the characters, or most of them anyway, and you will want to know how their stories unfold.   Because the writing is skilful, and the use of English is extraordinary.   Because you will learn something about the world.

I am not going to say that this is an easy book to read.   But I would say that it is one that you should read and enjoy.

For the Joy of Reading: The Man Who Died

I couldn’t put this book down.   It was compulsive reading.   From the moment that Jaakko Kaunismaa discovers that he has been poisoned, I wanted to know who the murderer was and why the crime had been committed.   There are plenty of obvious choices.    There are plenty of possibilities.   His Wife?   Her lover?   One of his colleagues?   One of his business rivals?   It is probably easier to identify the characters who could not have done it, like his Japanese customers, but even they could have paid someone to do the deed.

This is a classic whodunnit?   There is one difference.   Because the poison is slow acting, the victim can investigate his own murder.   Jaakko, of course, has no idea about how to do this, and leaves a trail of destruction behind him   There are red herrings galore (or should that be red mushrooms?   Jaakko is an exporter of mushrooms to the Japanese market.   Jaakko makes discoveries about the people around him, which may or may not be relevant to his murder.

He becomes obsessed with saving his business from whoever it is that has murdered him, whatever their reason is for doing this.   To say very much more would be to hint at who the perpetrator is, and that would spoil the fun of reading the book.   As the story progresses, some of the possibilities will be eliminated, but the complexities of the possibilities will increase.

This is a well-written, witty, perceptive story about how we respond to impossible circumstances.   The one thing that is certain from the beginning to the end of this book is that Jaakko has been murdered.

Read this book.   I think you will enjoy it.

For the Joy of Reading: Days Without End

I did not really expect Sebastian Barry to write a Cowboys and Indians novel, but that is what he has done.   But it is not that straightforward.   The cowboys are not real cowboys, driving a herd up from Texas or wherever to the railheads.   The story begins long before that era with people starving in Ireland and those who have the strength finding their way to the ships that lead them to the new world.   That is what happens to Thomas McNulty, the narrator of this story, and he ends up hiding from the rain under a bush in Missouri.   That is where he meets the love of his life, Handsome John Cole.

The second seminal event is the meeting with a Lakota warrior, Caught-his-Horse-First, and that in turn leads John and Thomas into the adoption of a Lakota girl, Winona.   [The Lakota are known to history as the Sioux, a name given to them by French-speaking trappers from Canada.   The name means cut-throat].   That is all the plot that you really need to know.

The story spans the Indian wars, the American Civil War, the death camp at Andersonville, the vicious racism of the post-bellum years in the Southern States, and it tells it all through the somewhat bewildered voice of Thomas McNulty.   The one constant is that Thomas loves John and Winona, the one as a husband and the other as a daughter.   They have to adopt many stratagems to survive as a family, one of which is Thomas, who is not very tall, disguises himself as a woman.

This is one thing that had never occurred to me.   Many of the dancing-girls in the saloons were boys.   There were so few women west of the Mississippi that the saloon owners had no choice but to employ pre-pubertal boys.   So, Marlene Dietrich’s song “Go, see what the boys in the backroom will have” in “Destry Rides Again” was not so far from the truth.

This is a truly entrancing story.   The language is extraordinary.   It has a beauty that will pierce your heart.   There are sentences of riveting power, my favourite being “The major’s as busy as Jesus at a wedding”.   Now you have to know this story, but if you do I guarantee that you will laugh.   It is that kind of book.   There are phrases and sentences that will take you by surprise, and make you laugh, although the story is tragic.

I cannot imagine that this story will find much favour in Trump’s America.  It is the story of the American Dream as nightmare.   It is not “Birth of a Nation” or “Gone with the Wind”.   It is much more like “Soldier Blue” or “Little Big Man” and these are films that very few people remember now.    It is a story of two genocidal events – the Irish Famine and the Indian Wars – and it tells of how three ordinary people coped.   Handsome John Cole, Winona and Thomas McNulty will remain in your memory for a very long time.

For the Joy of Reading: Judas

The title suggests what the subject matter is going to be.   So the first line that tells you that the story is set in the winter of 1959 takes you by the surprise.   Shmuel Ash is writing his thesis on Jewish attitudes to Jesus, and he has come to a dead end.   He does not understand the relationship between Jesus and Judas, although he recognises that without Judas’ betrayal there would be no story to discuss.   His problem is that Jewish writers from the first two centuries of the common era who mention Jesus say nothing about Judas, and that this tradition then continues throughout the ages.

Shmuel tries to resolve his academic problems by withdrawing from writing his thesis and taking a job looking after Gershom Wald, an invalid in a strange house in old Jerusalem.   Shmuel is hired by the old man’s daughter-in-law, Atalia, and for his board and lodging all he has to do if converse with the old man and to make sure that he takes his pills and eats the food prepared or him by a neighbour.

[I did wonder if there was any significance in Atalia being named after the Biblical Queen who murdered her way to the throne of Judah, and who was herself the victim of a murderous coup.   There is however no reference to this Queen in the story.   This does not mean that a literate Israeli audience is not expected to pick up this resonance, especially as Atalia is a private detective who spies on people.]

Gershom Wald is a combative, argumentative old man who does not have the strength in his legs to enable him to look after himself.   Atalia is a very private and very attractive woman who only wants transient relations with men.   This is because her husband and Gershom’s son was brutally murdered in one of the clashes of the 1948 war.   It is also because her father, Shealtiel Abravanel, was opposed to Ben Gurion’s vision for the creation of a Zionist state.   Oz must have chosen the name Abravanel for his fictional characters because it is an extremely distinguished name in the Sephardic Jewish community.   It helps to make his point that there was an alternative to the aggressive nationalisms that arose in nineteenth century eastern Europe, of which Zionism was one.

Shmuel’s view of Judas is that he was the first Christian.   This Judas did not see Gethsemane as a betrayal because he believed that Christ would come down from the cross and confound his enemies.   When this did not happen, Judas’ belief was shattered, his faith destroyed, his life made worthless.   Similarly, Abravanel is presented in the book as someone who was a leading figure in Zionism, but who came to believe that there were other ways to create a Jewish homeland than the creation of a state.   He is forced to resign from the governing bodies of Zionism and puts himself in internal exile, a sort of solitary confinement in his own house.   Atalia and Gershom move into the house, following the butchering of her husband.

This is a book about the nature of betrayal, about the relationship between Jews and Christianity, and it all goes back to Judas and the argument that he is the archetypal Jew in Christian theology, and that he is the root cause of anti-semitism.   I think that this overlooks the anti-semitism that was rife in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds.   It also overlooks the fact that the two most anti-Jewish of the Gospels are those written by Matthew and John, both of whom were Jewish.   It is, however, an argument that needs to be examined.

The betrayal at the heart of this story, however, is characterised by Shealtiel Abravanel.   Has he betrayed the Zionist ideal by his rejection of the State of Israel?   There will be those who give the kneejerk response of saying that of course he has.   There will be those who excoriate Amos Oz for suggesting that the opposite is possible.   I am not sure from this story where Oz’ loyalties lie, and that I think is the point.   The author is not telling us what to think, he is challenging us to think.   Some people will find that seriously disturbing.

I would urge you to read this book, and to think very seriously about the possibilities that are laid out before us.   It may be essential to the peace of the world to understand what the author is trying to get us to understand.

For the Joy of Reading: The Golden Legend

This is an extraordinary book.   It is extraordinary in so many ways that it is difficult to know where to begin.   So I thought that I would start with the obvious and work forwards from there.   Nadeem Aslam is a master of the craft of writing.   His choice of words is exquisite.   His construction of sentences approaches the immaculate, which is as good as it could ever possibly get.   Like the Ancient Mariner, he knows how to seize the attention of his readers and to make us listen until he has finished his story.   And what a story this is.   It is spellbinding.   It is riveting.   Whether you emerge sadder or wiser depends on your ability to listen and to understand.   You will not emerge from this tale unmoved.

This is an uncomfortable tale.   I imagine that there are many people who will be extremely unhappy with it as it brings things hiding in the shadows into the light.   It begins with Massud and Nargis setting out from their home to join a group of people carrying by hand rare and valuable books along the Grand Trunk Road in Zamana from the old library building to the new.   It begins with a story of renewal and a message of hope.   An American is driving along the same road and two young men on a motorcycle attempted to rob the American at gunpoint.   He opened fire and in the ensuing fight Massud is killed, as are both the robbers.   This is when the story enters the depths of hell.

The American claims diplomatic immunity, and the Pakistani military want the families to accept payment in compensation for the deaths in accordance with Sharia law.   But an extremist fundamentalist group want the families to reject compensation so that the American can be executed.   The original leader of this group was killed by a drone attack in Waziristan, and his widow, Aysha, and his son, who lost both his legs in the same attack, have returned to her father, who is the Imam of a mosque in Zamana.   Her brother-in-law and his gang of militants have also come to the mosque.   Aysha has begun a clandestine relationship with Lily, a rickshaw-wallah and a Christian, whose daughter Helen is being taught by Nargis.   There is one further character to introduce and that is Imtiaz.   He is a young man who has fled from the Indian Army in Kashmir to learn how to fight.    He ends up in a training camp outside Zamana, and he runs away from there.

It is not my task to tell you how all these stories interlock.   That you must discover for yourself.   The themes of the book however are quite clear.   This is a book about corruption.   There is the corruption of seeking wealth, that allows justice to be bought, that allows people to buy their way out of trouble, where influence is for sale.   There are also the two sides of this corruption process, those who are prepared to be bought and those who are prepared to buy.   But there is a much deeper corruption – that of the soul.  Nadeem Aslam explores the roots of this kind of corruption – anger, hate, humiliation, feelings of powerlessness, persecution and despair.   Nadeem Aslam explores all of this without being judgemental, although I think it is clear for whom ha has sympathy.

Aslam’s other theme is those redeeming qualities in all human life, hope and love.   They pervade this story.   In many ways, they are the root of it.   As I have said, it is an extraordinary tale.   It manages to be realistic and uplifting at the same time.   Nadeem Aslam is one of the extraordinary writers of our time.   He shows us the world as it is, but insists that there is hope.   His is a voice against despair.   His is a voice of humanity, of hope, of love – and the greatest of these is love.