Tag Archives: Bloomsbury Publishing

For the Joy of Reading: The Silk Roads

The first thing that has to be said about this book is that it is a delight to read a history of the Eurasian landmass that does not treat a peripheral group of islands on the western extremity of that landmass as central to the history of the world, until that actually became the case, at the end of the sixteenth century, to be generous.   It is also interesting that it treats the western, European end of that landmass as peripheral, until Columbus and Vasco Da Gama opened the sea routes west and east at the end of the fifteenth century.   As an addendum, it is interesting that Columbus had not had a clue about what he had done, and that it was not until the murderous conquests of Cortez and Pizarro in the early sixteenth century that the balance of the world was altered, and the contribution of Columbus to the imperialist destiny of Europe became clear.

It is also interesting that the Silk Roads were not roads, or at least not in the modern sense.   They were trade routes, and the goods that were transported across them came on the backs of camels, donkeys and mules, and sometimes by sea.   The great centres of civilisation were China and India, and they exported their surpluses along routes around the high Pamirs and the Taklamakan desert, through the steppes to Persia, to the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and then on to Rome, and its successors.

The steppes were also important because it was here that the beasts of burden were bred.   Two-humped camels are called Bactrian because they were bred in the province to the west of modern Afghanistan, and they were vital because they had the ability to carry vast amounts of water in their two humps.   The steppes were also home to vast horse herds, bred by nomad tribesmen and it was on horseback that the nomads swept time and time again to conquer – Huns and Avars and Turks and Mongols.   The names of their leaders are legendary – Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane.   Genghis Khan conquered the biggest land empire that the world has ever known.   The Silk Roads were the conduit for his armies.

But they were more than that: they were conduits for ideas and technologies.   The Abrahamic religions spread along the Silk Roads.   Silk manufacture and papermaking came along the Silk Roads from China.   Peter Frankopan sets out the central role of the Silk Roads as the main arteries of trade and civilisation from the time of Cyrus the Great and the Persian Empire of the Achaemenids to the present day.   Peter Frankopan sets out the case that the Silk Roads are the arteries leading to the heart of the world, and that heart is not Europe.   It is a necessary lesson.

This is a complex tale, well-told by Peter Frankopan.   It is very ambitious.   It covers a timespan of 2,500 years in 521 pages.   There are times when I wished for a bit more detail.   For instance, why did the Mongol expansion stop when Ogodei Khan died unexpectedly in 1241.   The answer, of course, is that it didn’t.   It was merely that Subadei Khan withdrew from the Danube, with his armies, to take part in the election of the new Great Khan.   Kubilai then moved into China, and Khulugu moved south into Persia and destroyed Baghdad.   It was Qutuz, the Mamluk Sultan of Egypt who stopped the Mongol advance westward at the Battle of Ayn Jalud, but this was only decisive because Khulugu was engaged, more profitably, elsewhere and did not challenge the Mamluk victory.   This, however, is a small criticism of what must have been editorial decisions to keep the story moving along without making it unintelligible.

No-one could accuse this book of being unintelligible.   The author guides you through the story with great skill, and keeps your attention from Alexander the Great to Mossadeq and Ayatollah Khomeini.   If you want to understand the world in which we live, this is a book that you should read.

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For the Joy of Reading: Norse Gods

What is it about the Norse Gods that make people want to read about them?   Neil Gaiman says that Marvel Comics are to blame.   This is certainly how he came to the stories, through Thor as the superhero.   I think it is slightly more complicated than this.  These are very human gods.   For a start, we know that they are not going to live forever.  they are going to die on the day of the great battle at Ragnarok, the end of the world as we know it.   They feast, the drink vast amounts of alcohol, they kill their enemies, they sleep around.   In other words, they are like our ruling classes, our history makers because we do not notice those who do not draw attention to themselves, who do not have adventures but who do the essential things like growing food and disposing of our excrement.   This, however, is not heroic and these gods certainly are.   They are also quite stupid.

Loki may be cunning, but he is not wise.   Thor may be strong but he is not intelligent.   Freya may be beautiful, but she is selfish.   And so it goes on from the least important to the most powerful gods, like Odin and Frig.   The point however is that this is a tragedy, because it ends in the downfall of the gods, and it is of cataclysmic proportions.   These are heroic figures in the terms of Greek tragedy.   It also helps that the stories are spellbinding and that Gaiman knows how to tell them.   [This, of course, is not a surprise].

But it is more than that.   These are stories that are deep from the consciousness of the far north of Europe.   It is possible to imagine them being told round the campfires as the ice retreated some 12,000 years ago.   These were people who lived with the knowledge that the ice could destroy them.   These were the people who lived through the long dark of the winter nights, trying to keep warm and fed.   These were the people who knew the importance and the threat of fire.   Their fears and their courage in the face of this environment are there in these stories.   It burns through them, and it has resonances in our lives.

But most of all it is Ragnarok, the battle between the Gods and their enemies, that we fear because we fear the destruction of our world.   This fear has penetrated to our culture that no longer believes in the Norse Gods, because it is there in the Book of Revelation – the battle between the Archangel Michael and the dragon, war in heaven, Armageddon, the end of the world.   The Norse myths speak to us of our fears, and that is why we still listen to these tales.   It is why they speak to us.

Neil Gaiman has done us the enormous favour of making them accessible to the next generation.

For the Joy of Reading: Home Fire

When the son of a recently appointed Muslim Home Secretary forms a relationship with the daughter and sister of Jihadis, what could possibly go wrong?   Well, as you would expect, quite a lot.   But this is a book by Kamila Shamsie so it is not a blood and thunder adventure story.   There is blood at the end, as you would expect, but it does not happen in the way that you would expect.   This is a Greek tragedy transposed to modern times, and that is not unintentional, as the author makes clear in the acknowledgements.   I am not going to tell you which tragedy, as that may lead you to guess the ending.   I have to say, however, that I doubt it.

The story is told in six parts based on the point of view of one of the main characters: Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka and Karamat.   Isma and Aneeka are sisters and Parvaiz is their brother.   They are the children of Adil Pasha or, to use his jihadi name, Abu Parvaiz (the Father of Parvaiz).   Parvaiz and Aneeka are twins.   Isma, Parvaiz and Aneeka are orphans.   Adil Pasha dies on his way to Guantanamo Bay and his wife died not long after him.   Isma was left to bring up Parvaiz and Aneeka as best she could, in a London hostile to jihadis.   Eamonn is the son of Karamat, the Home Secretary and his Irish wife, Terry.  Eamonn meets Isma in the USA and, through her, he meets Aneeka and they fall in love.   Meanwhile Parvaiz has followed in the footsteps of his father.  That is all the plot that you need to know.

Kamila Shamsie takes these five lives and weaves them together to create an inevitability that leads to catastrophe.   It is quite clear that something dreadful is going to happen, but it is not clear what form it is going to take.   It is not even clear who is really the victim.   They are all tragic figures.   There is something heroic about all of them.   They are subject to things that they cannot control, and yet they are not manipulated by circumstances, even if they are manipulated by each other.   They take the decisions that take them to their destiny, whether that is death or living with the grief of the death of the others.

This is a remarkable book.   You will be sadder and wiser for the reading of it.