Tag Archives: Penguin

For the Joy of Reading: The Shahnameh

The Shahnameh is one of the great epic poems of world literature. It is, as the subtitle of this translation suggests, “The Persian Book of Kings”. It is not, however, a history. It is a series of stories, of mythology, and only approaches accuracy as it reaches its conclusion with the stories of the Sassanid Kings and the destruction of their Empire by the Islamic conquest of the C7th CE. There are some astonishing omissions. The Achaemenid kings, who built the first Persian Empire, do not get a mention. There is no reference to Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius or Xerxes. They are mentioned in the Bible, by the Greek historian Herodotus, but not in the Persian Book of Kings. The only Achaemenid mentioned is Dara (Darius III) because of his defeat and the conquest of his empire by Sikander (Alexander the Great). Less surprisingly, the Seleucids, who were not Persian, do not get a mention, and the Parthians only merit 25 pages of this 886-page abridged version of the epic. The story leaps from Alexander to the Sassanid Kings, proving the link that Sassan was the son of Dara who escaped from Alexander and lived in security. I do not know if the Sassanids ever made such a claim, but they certainly reasserted the Persian identity of their Empire, as opposed to the Hellenistic policies of the Seleucids and the Parthians.
The book is basically split into three parts – the Pre-Alexander kings, the reign of Alexander (Sikander) and the Sassanid Empire. The first part of the book has no historical accuracy whatsoever. But the stories are wonderful. What is not to like about stories such as a King being so evil that snakes grew out of his shoulder-blades (something like a Hindu demon, which is not surprising given the links between the two cultures) or a magic bird rearing a royal child and then rescuing it, as a grown man, from disaster. Or there is the story of Sohrab and Rustam, which is familiar to people of my generation because we had to read the Matthew Arnold heroic poem of that name when we were at school. But this is essentially made up stories probably pieced together from folk tales and with all the elements of such stories. There are children in peril, wicked stepmothers, heroes and villains, dragons and monster – everything that you could want. And these are stories that should be better known in the West if we are ever to understand the Middle East. And anyway, they are just so good, and are only not read because we in the West will have difficulty pronouncing the names (as if that matters).
Then there is the story of Sikander. The real story is there although it is only briefly told. We skip through his victories at Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela (or Arbela, depending on which name is used) and head straight to the mythology. According to Ferdowsi, his mother was a Persian. This just not true. His mother, Olympias, was a Greek, the daughter of the King of Epirus. According to these stories he crossed into India (he did) and into Yemen and Ethiopia (he did not) and visited the court of the Andalusian Queen (he did not as Andalusia as a kingdom did not exist in his lifetime). But the stories are interesting, presenting a barbarian who was keen to acquire knowledge. It is an interesting view of Alexander.
Then we skip to the Sassanids, ignoring the Roman defeat at Carrhae by the Parthian general Surena, which defined the location of the border between the Roman and Parthian empires from the time of Julius Caesar to that of Trajan. I have no idea whether or not these stories about the Sassanids are accurate. Certainly, the Shah, Shapur, did capture and imprison a Roman Emperor (Valerian) but what is meant by the story of Bahram Gur killing a dragon is anyone’s guess. I also doubt that the Persian Shahs married the daughters of Byzantine and Roman Emperors, but I do not know that they did not.
There are two things that are striking about these stories. The first is the wealth and extravagance of the Persian Shahs. There is a constant mention of gold, silver, jewels, brocades, silk, silk carpets and all kinds of wealth, and that wealth being distributed liberally to all and sundry. The second is the presence of Ahriman, the personification of evil, that we know as Satan or the Devil throughout the stories. Ferdowsi makes it clear that the Sassanids in particular were Zoroastrians. This was true of all the Persian Kings, except the Seleucids from historically recorded time onwards, but for Ferdowsi it only becomes significant as the conflict with Christianity and then Islam approaches. The last chapter tells the story of the defeat of Yazdegerd III by the Islamic invasion, and it reads as a tragedy.
There is so much more to say, but if I write any more people will not read this review. So, I would urge you to read these stories to improve your knowledge of the world and also for their sheer enjoyability.

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For the Joy of Reading: Falcon of Sparta

Conn Iggulden is a reliable writer of historical novels.   What you will get will be readable, pacy and exciting.   That is certainly the case with Falcon of Sparta.   This is the story of the Anabasis, the march of ten thousand Greek soldiers across the Persian Empire   It was this march that proved beyond a shadow of doubt that the Persian Empire was vulnerable.   This was the march that opened the way for the conquest by Alexander the Great.

The story begins with a dynastic struggle.   Darius II, the Great King of Persia, dies leaving two sons.   The elder son, Artaxerxes, succeeds to the throne but does not eliminate his brother Cyrus because of the intervention of their mother Queen Parysatis.   This however is after Artaxerxes has made his intention clear by murdering Cyrus’ bodyguards and imprisoning the Prince.   Cyrus is then released and prepares for war, recruiting 10,000 Greek mercenaries to march with him on the Persian Empire’s capital.

All of this is a matter of the historical record, but most people will probably not be familiar with ancient history.   So I am not going to give any of the details of the march, the battle of Cunaxa or what happened afterwards.   What is important is that one of the Greek leaders was called Xenophon, and he was a pupil of Socrates, the philosopher, who is a peripheral character in this book.   Xenophon was the author of the “Anabasis” the only record of this campaign.   We have to believe what he says, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary.   What we do know is that the army under his command survived and that gives his account credibility.

What Conn Iggulden is take the Anabasis and weld it into an historical novel, seeking to understand what his characters thought as the events progressed.   We meet some unpleasant characters, like Tissaphernes, a Persian noble loyal to the Achaemenid dynasty and to Artaxerxes, the heir of the Great King, but also self-serving, devious and vicious.   Then there is Queen Parysatis whose argument that Cyrus is the only heir as Artaxerxes does not yet have children proves to be fatal.   [Incidentally, if Artaxerxes of the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther this throws a whole new light on the viciousness of the Achaemenid court].   We meet the Greek generals and soldiers, who throw themselves into an attack on the Persian Empire for money, but also for revenge.   Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea resonate throughout this story.

So what you have is an exciting historical novel, an easy read into the history of the ancient world, and the fall of the Persian Empire.   I wonder if a series about Alexander the Great will follow.

For the Joy of Reading: Inglorious Empire

The first thing to say is that this is not a history of the British Raj.   It is a book that arose from a debate at the Oxford Union.   It is a deconstruction of the arguments out forward that the British Empire was, in some way, good for the countries that were conquered.   That means that it is controversial, but it does not make it wrong.   It is obviously nonsense to argue that people are prepared for independence by robbing them of their independence, and when the arguments for the benefits of British rule are that stupid, it really is not necessary to refute them.

So let us look at the arguments, and see if we can test them.   This is what Tharoor sets out to do, and it is very instructive that the arguments advanced for the benefits of British colonialism do not generally hold up.

When Queen Elizabeth I signed the royal charter for the English East India Company (Scotland being a separate country at the time) it was not that she envisaged the creation of an Empire.   This would have been ridiculous.   Her contemporary, ruling most of the Indian sub-continent, was the Mughal Emperor, Akbar.   He ruled one of the most populous and prosperous states in the world at that time.   The Mughal Empire was one of the great intellectual centres, and the Mughal army was formidable.   Elizabethan England, along with their Dutch allies, were involved in a long and debilitating war with the Spain of Philip III.   He, as King of Portugal, controlled the East Indies spice trade.   The Dutch East India Company had been making inroads into this monopoly, and Elizabeth wanted to secure her share of the profit at no cost to herself.   So she issued a royal charter and sent an ambassador to Akbar the Great.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was very little change.   The British, under Charles II, secured Bombay as the dowry for his Portuguese wife, and opened some trading posts in the South Indian states, independent of the Mughal Empire.   But very little changed until the enfeeblement of that Empire was demonstrated by the invasion of the Persian army under Nadir Shah, the storming of Delhi and the seizure of Mughal treasures, including the Koh-i-noor diamond and the Peacock Throne.   Meanwhile, the French had arrived in Pondicherry and came into conflict with the British in South India, based at Madras (now Chennai).   The decisive moment came when the British East India Company and the French were allowed to recruit armies in the Indian sub-continent.

This is one of the areas where I would argue with Tharoor.    If the British had not colonised India it is likely that the French would have done so, and that would have altered the course of European history.   The riches of India would have poured into Versailles, not London.   It is probable that the French monarchy would not have been forced, because of bankruptcy, to reconvene the States-General and the French Revolution would not have happened.   The prospect of an India not subject to colonisation does not seem likely to me.   That however is a minor quibble because history deals with what happened, not the various possibilities that did not happen.

There are a number of factors that changed British attitudes to India.   Clive’s victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 gave the East India Company the control of Bengal.   With that came a rapacity that drained India of resources, in which Clive himself led the way.   The sudden access to wealth of the employees of the East India Company made them good marriage material, and so young women arrived by the boatload, in what became known as the “fishing fleet”, in search of suitable husbands.   This changed attitudes considerably.   Young men had, prior to this, formed liaisons and even married Indian women.   This stopped.

But how the Raj was created is not Tharoor’s subject.    His subject is how it behaved.   The argument of the apologists is that it gave India good government, democracy, peace and security, transportation, an international language and cricket.   Tharoor demolishes this.   It is no accident that the term that the British used for themselves in India, the “Sahib Log” was translated as “master race”.   Indians were denied access to the higher echelons of government and when they were employed, they were paid at a vastly inferior rate to the British counterparts.   As for democracy, this depends on how you define it but for most of the period that the British ruled India, the electorate in Britain was limited to men of a certain income.   The British also ensured that Indian industry was impoverished by exporting raw materials (jute, cotton etc.) from India to places like Manchester and Dundee, converting them into sacking, clothes and other goods, and then selling them back to India at vastly inflated prices.   This was why the railways were built, not to facilitate the transport of ordinary people.   Where the transport of people was concerned it was in moving people, mainly women, from the heat of Calcutta (now Kolkata) to the cool of Simla in the summer months.   This is the society described by Rudyard Kipling in his “Plain Tales from the Hills”.   The British also exacerbated through their policy of “divide and rule” the religious differences between Sikhs, Hindus and Moslems.   This was to have disastrous consequences during the Partition of 1947, because it made partition a certainty and left millions stranded on the wrong sides of the border in both the Punjab and Bengal.

As for giving India an international common language, this was because the colonial masters could not be bothered to learn the already existing languages of government in India.   They also wanted to impress upon Indians joining the governing classes the “superiority” of British culture.   [Tharoor does not say this, but when the English settled in what became England in the fifth and sixth centuries (Common Era), they called the natives Welsh, which means foreigners, in the land where they had lived for thousands of years.]   Their attitude to Indic languages was one of arrogance, dismissing the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Vedas as insignificant and primitive.

This argument is developed over the 249 pages of the book, and is backed up with extensive footnotes.   The basic attitude of the Raj can be summed up quite easily: We are white, and they are not.

This is not a book that will go down well with Brexiteers, with those nostalgic for the glories of Empire, with Daily Mail readers and others of that ilk.   If, however, you do not fit those categories, it is a book that will give you many a moment to pause and think.

 

For the Joy of Reading: The Darkness

Ragnar Jonasson is a find.   This is someone who knows how to write a detective thriller.   He knows how to build a character.   He knows how to paint the background details of his detective and of the plot.   He knows how to make you want to find out what is going on.   This possibly comes from the fact that he spent his early years, from 17 onwards, translating Agatha Christie into English.   I think, however, that it is more to do with innate talent and the ability to know how to construct a story.   You will have to judge for yourself.

Describing the plot is quite difficult, because I do not want to give away the twists and turns, and I certainly do not wish to give away the ending as that will spoil the story and probably the two subsequent novels, still to be published, in this trilogy.   Sufficient to say that you will be taken aback.

Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir is approaching retirement.   She has had a miserable life.   Both her husband and her daughter have died in separate but tragic incidents.   She was a child of a single parent in the 1950s  when these things were distinctly not approved of.   Her father was an American airman who left Iceland without even knowing that Hulda’s mother was pregnant.   Her mother did not even know his surname.   All of this emerges in the course of the book.

The only thing that Hulda enjoys is her job, and the story starts with her facing forcible early retirement to make room for a rising star,   She is given a choice of cold cases that she can solve as a consolation prize.   She chooses the case of Elena, a Russian asylum applicant, who was found dead on a beach near Reykjavik just after her asylum application had been granted.

Hulda smells a rat, and when she discovers that the case was only cursorily and incompetently investigated, she is off like a bloodhound scenting a trail.   That is all I am going to tell you.   Anything else could give away the plot

I suggest that you read this book yourselves.   This is another name to add to the stable of excellent Nordic noir writers.   Ragnar Jonasson is a name to watch.

For the Joy of Reading: Exit West

As is only to be expected, this book by Mohsin Hamid is worth reading..   It is a story about refugees and about survival.    The doors are a metaphor for the dark and difficult journeys that refugees must make in order to get to a place of safety.   It is a story about people fleeing from war, from bombings, from danger and destruction and how when they get to a place of safety they find that they are not safe, because they are not welcome.   It does not matter really whether people are fleeing from war, from famine, from flooding or from persecution.   They are fleeing and there are millions of them.   This story of Nadia and Saeed is but one story.   Mohsin Hamid uses their story to personalise the tale of refugees.

They are not symbols.   They are people that you will care about.   They are not exemplary.   They are deeply and ordinarily human.   Their home city is not named.   It could be Baghdad or Damascus or Mogadishu or Kabul.   We only know that it is a Moslem city..   We know that Saeed prays, and that Nadia wears some form of Islamic dress, but is otherwise not religious.   We know that they meet over coffee and without a chaperone.   And we know that, when the crisis comes, they flee together.   We know that they end up in Mykonos, which suggests that they are fleeing the war in Syria, but we are never told that.   We know that they move on to London.   We also know that they survive because when they are old (about my age) they return to their home city.

This book is about how they survive.   It has a very simple message: there, but for the grace of God, go I.   It is a story that tells you not to ask “for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee”.

For the Joy of Reading: Hunting the Eagles

The problem for any author who writes about the Julio-Claudian Roman Emperors is that the Robert Graves novels, “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” are unforgettable.   And if they are not haunted by the books, then they are by the Derek Jacobi TV series of the books.   Or at least that is what I think until I remember that the TV series was some 30-40 years ago, and that hardly anyone has read the books nowadays.   So if this review leads a few people to the Robert Graves books, the this review will have done some good.

Ben Kane deals with the Robert Graves problem by concentrating on an event that is peripheral to Graves’ story, but which was pivotal in the history of the Roman Empire, and therefore of Europe.   The defeat and destruction of three Roman legions in the Teutoberger Forest determined the history of the continent.   The Roman border was fixed at the Rhine for the next four centuries, until it was overwhelmed by invading German tribes.

“Hunting the Eagles” is about the aftermath of the death of the Roman General, Varus, and his three legions.   The Roman Emperor, Augustus, wanted revenge.   But this required careful planning and there were other matters to be dealt with, such as a rebellion along the Danube frontier in Pannonia.   The Emperor’s heir apparent, Tiberius Caesar, put down this rebellion and came to Rome to celebrate his triumph.   That is the start of the book, and how we are introduced to the major characters, Tullus, Fenestela, Piso and Vitellius and later to Germanicus Caesar, who is to command the Roman war of vengeance, and his wife Agrippina and their baby son, Gaius Caligula.

The other major character is Arminius, the German leader who rallied the various tribes to oppose Varus, ambushed him and inflicted such a crushing defeat that only a few hundred legionaries survived, and Varus himself was killed.   Most of the German characters are Arminius’ family, and we know about them because they are mentioned by Tacitus in his accounts of the history of Imperial Rome.

This is the second book in the “Eagles of Rome” trilogy so we will have met some of these characters before in “Eagles at War” and we will meet some of them again in “Eagles in the Storm” to be published next year.   This second book is set mainly in the barracks of the Roman imperial army along the banks of the Rhine and also in the German settlements on the east bank of the Rhine, or in the forests and bogs that were not farmed by the Germanic tribes.

Anyone who objects to barrack room language will not like this book.   It is however set in a barracks and Ben Kane has a deft touch in making his readers realise what it must have been like to be a legionary who survived the dreadful massacre, thirsting for revenge and hating Arminius with a visceral loathing.   Kane makes you understand the men that he puts before you as a reader.   He also makes you understand the German’s fury at the invasion of their lands, and their hatred of Roman imperial arrogance.    You could change the time and the location, and it does not take any imagination to grasp how invaded peoples feel about their invaders.

Kane marches you through the mud and the gloom of the German forests.   He terrifies you during the fighting.   He makes you feel the relief when the fighting is over.   You grasp the grievances and the anger.   You understand the political machinations, the tactics and the strategy of the commanders.   You learn that a good non-commissioned officer can make all the difference.   You march to war with the men, not the generals.   This is not a comfortable read, but it makes non-combatants like me have some understanding of the realities of close combat and wat.