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Archive for May, 2009

The Islamist (2007)
Ed Husain
Penguin Books, 286pp

Part memoir and part debate on the causes and rise of radical Islam in Great Britain, Ed Husain’s The Islamist is revealed to be essential reading. His erudition and honesty form the backbone to this compelling and stimulating story of his involvement with Islamic fundamentalists in London mosques as a teenager to his complete indoctrination until one moment of violence leads to the unravelling of everything he thought he held dear. Had this just been the narrative of those events I doubt this book would hold such potent power, but because Ed Husain is knowledgeable about both the true nature of Islam and how different Islamic groups seek to co-opt the faith for their ideological ends, he is able to engage with the deeper political, religious and social questions in a persuasive manner.

The tectonic shifts that occurred within the Muslim world following the September 11 attacks overshadow much debate about radicalised Islam, but Ed Husain’s focus is British Islam and his discussion of the 7/7 attacks and the role fundamentalist groups operating without impunity in British city centres and their connections to Saudi Wahhabi sects makes for some of the most stimulating political debate on the issue that I have read in a long time. He presents his information at a personal level, and though much of what he states might be unproven (the way the Hizb ut-Tahrir operates conceals member affiliations easily), his arguments make sense; and besides, much of what Husain has to say appears to be common sense.

For those readers with little understanding of the Muslim faith, and especially for those who understand Islam only through the actions of a radicalised few, The Islamist will prove especially provocative. We hear only of these radicals wishing to establish a Muslim state – a caliphate – and the implication of this is that all Muslims must therefore be alike in their faith. Ed Husain skilfully deconstructs this, by highlighting numerous different Islamic sects – radicalised, sufi, moderate – and the ways in which the observance of their faith alters drastically, even within the Arab world (Syria is vastly different to Saudi Arabia), and through these discussions is able to reveal how the extremism of Saudi Wahhabism is insidiously infiltrating Britain. He ends with a challenge to British leaders to excise this cancerous form of Islam from British society, for the danger it poses is extreme: we are breeding the next generation of disillusioned but dedicated extremists.

The Islamist should be required reading for everyone, and especially for those engaged in Islamic education and British politics. It is an important book for it is the beginning of a debate that cannot be ignored and that, with the rise of fundamentalism across the globe, will be important and relevant for the next decade or two.

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Last Evenings on Earth (1997, 2001)
Roberto Bolaño
Vintage, 277pp
Translation by Chris Andrews

Roberto Bolaño’s reputation has, in the time since his death, rocketed. Two of his novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666 (both previously reviewed on this blog) have been highly and justly praised. In the wake of such interest in his work, publishers have been quick to release his back catalogue, with works planned well into the next year, many of which will be translated into English for the first time, including unpublished manuscripts found in his private collections that his estate has seen fit to release. This collection of fourteen short stories was the first of Bolaño’s works to be translated, by Chris Andrews, and as such must be seen as the beginning of the English-speaking world’s fascination with this author.

Last Evenings on Earth explore themes familiar from Bolaño’s two novels. The stories are about writers, poets mostly, who live in a strange mixture of European and South American (mostly Mexican, occasionally Chilean) milieu’s that represent something of Bolaño’s own life – his alter-ego, Arturo Belano from The Savage Detectives and probably the narrator of 2666, features in some of these stories, possibly more (some of the characters are referenced only by letters: both A and B appear). If the fascinations of his novels appears again in these stories, one should not think of them as lesser works or as first drafts of the novels to come – what we have here is an author working out his themes, hammering them, shaping them into focus, which is not to say these stories do not have the same focus of the novels, for they do, but that his work as a whole should be seen as a symphonic piece – 2666 takes its name from a story in another collection, and in its own way this collection feeds into The Savage Detectives. Bolaño’s work is inter-textual, there is richness here, richness not often found in other writers: it is no wonder Susan Sontag named Bolaño “The most influential and admired novelist of his generation in the Spanish-speaking world.” I think with the success of this and other works, that reputation has spread to the English-speaking world.

The best of the stories in this collection revolve around encounters. The opening piece, Sensini, tells of a struggling short story writer who enters into a correspondence with a more successful and ruthless writer. The struggling writer is sent a photograph of the other, posing with his wife and daughter, and the struggling writer wonders about the daughter. Their encounter in the final pages of the story reverberates back through what has come. The title story, and a wonderful evocative piece about a teenage boy, obsessed with poets, on a road journey with his father and the sexual and spiritual awakening he experiences, an experience filtered through their encounters with a professional diver, a prostitute and each other. Some of the pieces here come across as quite conventional: Anne Moore’s Life is much too straightforward and seems too superficial in construction to control the depths that are simmering beneath its sheen; whilst others come across as more experimental, Bolaño is playing with form, as in Dance Card or A Literary Adventure, and such activity is rewarding for the reader. The first of these stories were published in 1997, just before he completed The Savage Detectives, and it is not hard to trace the lineage from these stories to that novel.

Taken as a whole the stories in Last Evenings on Earth are highly successful. There is a haunting but heady content to these stories gathered here, and reveal Bolaño a writer as equally comfortable with short fiction as he is with the longer form. Bolaño is sincerely a master-craftsman and this collection of short stories is, of the uninitiated, a wonderful first introduction to the writer, and for the person already intoxicated by Bolaño and his world, Last Evenings on Earth is a potent addition. It is such a shame that his evenings are gone.

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Afutãdãku (After Dark) (2004)

Haruki Murakami

Vintage, 201pp

Following my reading of Haruki Murakami’s 2008 memoir of running, reviewed previously on this blog, I retrieved from my ever-growing ‘to read’ pile, this short novella from 2004.  After Dark is slight – though the Vintage edition just fills 200 pages, it could easily lose another forty if all the white space and large clocks that begin each section were removed.  It is a novella that seems to explore a very Japanese problem – Hikikomori, or the withdrawal from public life as a conscious decision, which the sisters Mari and Eri have both decided upon, Mari by coming out only at night and Eri by sleeping for two months, and that the clients at the Alphaville Hotel seem also to be doing.

The story takes place over one night and yet has none of the blistering rush that another author might have chosen; After Dark takes its time, its rhythms dictated by Duke Ellington jazz pieces, by the French Nouvelle Vague (Alphaville, lest we forget, is a 1965 science fiction movie by Jean-Luc Godard), and by the mood Murakami wishes to create: “Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city’s moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.”

I am told that After Dark is not as arresting as some of Murakami’s other work.  If this is indeed the case, then I will most certainly be tracking down the rest of his catalogue, for I found After Dark utterly seductive; it is a novel whose languorous tone envelopes you, and is populated by characters as beguiling as they are seductive.  The tender romance that plays out between Mari and Takahashi is bittersweet, filled with longing and knowledge that this is all fleeting, a nocturnal moment that will be shattered by morning light.

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How To Be Alone (2002)

Jonathan Franzen

Fourth Estate, 278pp

Jonathan Franzen is one of the wunderkinds of modern American letters.  Justly praised for his 2001 novel, The Corrections, he nevertheless became the subject of much criticism when that novel was selected for the Oprah Winfrey book club only to have his inclusion rescinded when he expressed doubts about it.  He was also targeted because, in 1996, in Harpers Magazine, he had published an essay entitled Perchance to Dream (now renamed Why Bother?) in which he posed a number of question about the purpose of fiction in the present day and seemed to have promised that his next novel would be “a big social novel that would engaged with mainstream culture and rejuvenate American literature” and critics wondered if he had achieved it with The Corrections.  Following the furore Franzen saw fit to release that original essay with a collection of other essays (including one about the Oprah fiasco) with the intention, it seems, of setting the record straight, to “Make clear what I had said and what I hadn’t said”.

Reading How To Be Alone in this light, one is forced to constantly ask the question: what is Franzen’s intent?  Has he set the record straight?  There are thirteen essays that make up this book and they cover subjects disparate as writing, the American prison system, tobacco companies, advertising and the Chicago postal service.  One phrase crops up frequently in the first 100 or so pages and it is where the title comes from, as Franzen meditates upon the nature of solitude, of trying to find a quiet corner in a crazy world.  There are moments of rage, of disgust, of misunderstand, of alienation.  As with all the best essays, his discourse wanders – in one essay he will take in the gentrification of a suburb, encyclopaedias, sewers, rock stars, historical city development and the status of a city surrounded by wilderness.  His knowledge is wide, his scope epic.  Nobody could accuse Franzen of myopia.

As is the way with all such essay collections, How To Be Alone does not always work.  Erika Imports is much too slight to make any impact, and Books in Bed fails to get into the depth of its subject.  When it works, though, it works exceptionally well.

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Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (1837 – 1839)
Charles Dickens
Wordsworth Classics, 506pp

And so we come to Charles Dickens’s most famous work. Oliver Twist was serialised in Bentley’s Miscellany beginning in February 1837 and ending in April 1839 and it introduced some of Dickens’s best loved and known characters, from the titular Oliver, to Fagin, Bill Sikes, Nancy, and The Artful Dodger. It is impossible to approach this work without knowledge of it – whether through one of the innumerable screen adaptations, the stage musical or simple osmosis from public knowledge. I approached this novel hesitantly – I thought I knew the story, and much of it was extremely familiar – the workhouse where Oliver asks for more, the den in which Fagin hides his stolen goods, the robbery gone wrong, the kindness of Mr Brownlow. I could see them all from Carol Reeds film, from David Lean’s film. What was the point, it seemed, of finally reading a work I thought I knew so well?

Dickens was twenty-five when he began Oliver Twist. He was riding high off the success of The Pickwick Papers and it seems with his second novel that he wanted to address some of the injustices he knew of and sensed in Victorian Britain, such as the Poor Law, which stated that poor people must be employed in work houses – places whose conditions were so dire that those people seconded to them suffered greatly The early chapters of this novel which describe Twist’s life in a workhouse and then in the employ of Mr Sowerberry, the undertaker, and they reveal Dickens’s scathing portrait of poor society, of families crammed into one room, of people living with so little food or basic comfort, of a class despised by the bourgeoisies. Society at this time was in dire straits, and the treatment of the poor was soon to become a national problem – Friedrich Engels in just a few years would publish his Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, with a focus on Manchester, and though Engels would portray this society with more skill than Dickens, Dickens’s early contribution to this social discussion is of great importance.

Because of so much prior knowledge not only of this books content, but of its position in social discussion and because of its obviously manipulative language, I found Oliver Twist a not wholly successful novel. Oliver seems to almost vanish from his own tale in the second half, following the botched robbery in which he is finally separated from Sikes and Fagin – something that the film versions have corrected, much to the narratives enjoyment I find.

Also, the 1948 film version was accused of being anti-Semitic, when Alec Guinness based his character on George Cruickshank’s illustrations, but the anti-Semitism seems more heightened in the novel. Fagin is rarely referred to by name, but by racial epithet only – he is always “the Jew”. I know that Dickens responded to this at the time and that the last instalments of his work he referred to Fagin more by name, and in a later novel had ‘friendly Jews’, but nevertheless it is something that sours ones reading of this classic tale.

I had expected to enjoy Oliver Twist, and it is true that there is much to enjoy here – the employment of dramatic cliff-hangers; the twisting, tense narrative; the wonderful characterisation – but ultimately I found the novel an unsatisfying one. Maybe because of my over familiarity with it, maybe because its faults seemed larger because I found I could focus on them because I knew the story too well, or maybe because I find for about a hundred pages in the middle the books seems to lose all momentum (I admit to almost putting it down and not finishing it at this point), and maybe because at the end of the day it is all too neat – the good get what they want and the bad die – that it bordered on cliché (but cliché only because Dickens created it).

I am excited by the idea of some of Dickens’s later novels, some of which I do not know at all other than by name, that I am willing to overlook this slight disappointment. Nicholas Nickleby is next, a book he had started while still finishing Oliver Twist, and it is one of those that I do not know much of. I can’t wait.

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Burnt Shadows (2009)
Kamila Shamsie
Bloomsbury, 363pp

Nominated for the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction, Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel, Burnt Shadows, explores the way in which histories shape one another, and of how people, caught up in events beyond their control, manage to find humanity even in the darkest of days.

It reveals its epic scope quickly, with a short prologue in Guantanamo Bay, as a man in shackles wonders “How did it come to this?” Instead of showing us this Islamisation of this youth, we travel backward, to Nagasaki, on the day of the atomic bomb. At every point in this novel Shamsie undermines expectation. Hiroko, a Japanese teacher turned munitions factory worker in love with the German man, Konrad Weiss, but their romance is curtailed by a flash of white light in the sky and Konrad becomes a shadow on a stone and the birds on Hiroko’s kimono are seared into her flesh, a fusion of “charred silk, seared flesh”, and the novel leaps again from 1940s Japan to Delhi in the 1940s. Here we meet Konrad’s family, people with a dashing air, but Hiroko is drawn to Sajjad Ali Ashraf, a Muslim employee. Ilse Weiss misconstrues a moment of intimacy between Hiroko and Sajjad as predation, but their romance is born and as they flew the violence rising in India and the about to be formed Pakistan, the novel leaps forward again in time, to 1980s Pakistan where we meet Sajjad and Hiroko’s child, Raza. Raza is a brilliant polyglot and soon finds himself befriending Afghani refugees from the Soviet invasion. He meets Ilse Weiss’s son, Harry Burton, a CIA operative who has a daughter, Kim that sometimes visits. Shamsie all the while is invisibly pulling the threads, bringing her characters ever closer to the brink. The novel leaps again to 2001, just after the fall of the World Trade Centre. Hiroko is in New York with Ilse and Kim. Raza is working with Harry in Afghanistan. Another moment of misconstrued behaviour sees Harry gunned down and puts Raza on the run. He arrives back in America looking to help a friend escape an America that is hunting down any Muslim with ties to Afghanistan, but another moment of misconstrued behaviour will change the fates of all these people; people caught in the tidal swell of history.

Kamila Shamsie’s novel is both a tour-de-force and so overly ambitious that it falls under its own weight. There are moments where she struggles for the portentous and it comes across as contrived, especially in the final stages of Raza’s journey in Afghanistan. The shadows of Michael Ondaatje and Anita Desai loom over this. However, Shamsie’s portrait of these different worlds is at times so masterly it overrides all of this. We are swept along in this narrative, just as the characters are, and the final act of betrayal and acceptance that end the novel echoed so beautifully back through everything else that had come before you realise that this is the only way this story could end. As with all the best fiction the end of Burnt Shadows is not the end of the story. With the themes she is discussing in this novel becoming relevant again, it would be interesting to see how Raza, Kim and all the rest try to understand the world since 2001.

This is a powerful, epic novel that reveals an author unafraid of tackling the big themes. To have ambition in her writing and to have the strength to pull it off is a rare thing in today’s consumerist society. Kamila Shamsie should be praised widely for Burnt Shadows. I could say more, so much more, but I haven’t the time, so please, just go and read this wonderful book.

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Exit Ghost (2007)
Philip Roth
Vintage, 292pp

I’m a late arrival to the cult of Roth.  I read Everyman when that came out in 2006, and then enjoyed American Pastoral.  Recently I picked up his 2007 Nathan Zuckerman novel Exit Ghost, along with his next published novel, Indignation.  I like his style, though I wonder if he is as profound as some critics have declared him.  In recent years we have seen many calling for him to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It is clear he is a prodigious talent, a man for whom old age seems to have become a motivation to produce his greatest works.

Some time ago, probably upon the publication of Everyman, I read an interview with him in which he espoused his love for the Joseph Conrad story The Shadow Line.  Beginning Exit Ghost Zuckerman talks about this story too and immediately it became difficult for me to disentangle Zuckerman from Roth.  One can see Roth enjoying seclusion in the Berkshires, writing, swimming and reading voraciously those books that in his youth inspired him.  We can see Roth having to come to the city for a medical procedure and we can see him becoming irritated by recognition.  When in Exit Ghost Zuckerman agrees to exchange apartments with a young couple, both writers, and becomes fascinated by Jamie, a beautiful Texan whom he saw once before at an academic conference, one sees the choices Roth cannot make but would like to.  But one shouldn’t read fiction like this, especially not with someone like Roth.  He is too clever for simply veiled autobiography.  Indeed, Zuckerman states: ‘An astonishing thing it is too that one’s prowess and achievement such as they have been, should find their consummation in the retribution of biographical inquisition’.  Also, Roth stated in an interview with the BBC, reprinted by The Independent:

“I’m not teasing anyone; I’m just using what’s useful to me. Having a character born at the same time I was means I’m familiar with the decades that follow. It would be foolish for me to deny that they’re aren’t likenesses between myself and the character, but let’s take this book as an example, for instance. The strongest fact about Zuckerman in this book, and what determines so much of the action, is that he has prostate cancer. Well, fortunately for me, I’ve never had this illness. Why did I give it to Zuckerman? Because at the time I was writing American Pastoral, it seemed that every third or fourth man I knew had prostate cancer. And I came to know quite a bit about it just from talking to them, and visiting them in the hospital, and so on. And I thought, “Well, why not give it to this guy?””

There is another deeper parallel at work in Exit Ghost.  Zuckerman learns that someone is writing a biography of his old friend E. I. Lonoff, and this critic, Richard Kilman, is convinced that Lonoff’s writing hides an autobiographical element, a deep secret, which he is now to expose.  Kilman’s motivation is to make the American public read Lonoff again.  If we are reading Exit Ghost wondering about its autobiographical content, Roth is engaging us in that discussion by having such a wondering happen in his own novel.  The ‘deep secret’ also references the reality of another writer’s life, that when Arthur Miller was revealed to have sent his Down’s Syndrome child to a home and seemingly deserted him.  Miller’s ‘deep secret’ caused a re-evaluation of his work that was not about the work but the biography.  Roth’s work plays on all these levels, and more besides.

The title is, of course, a reference to Macbeth.  Roth’s knowledge of literature, and particularly theatre, often infuses his work, and at times the allusions he makes only come into clear focus when one knows the works to which he refers.  The aforementioned Conrad story opens with a justifiably famous line:

“Only the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection.”

This story is refracted through Zuckerman in Exit Ghost and seems Roth’s attempt to disprove it.  Can Zuckerman still act?  Can his decisions make a difference?

Roth has stated that this is the final Zuckerman novel.  He is currently producing a novel a year; it seems writing has consumed him totally.  This is where he truly differs to Zuckerman, who though he writes a play in Exit Ghost, it is clear it is not for public consumption, but written as a form of masturbation.  Zuckerman does not write.  Roth always is.

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