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Wave of Terror
Wave of Terror
by Theodore Ordach
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Lived experience of the Stalinist period in Belarus, 16 Aug 2010
This review is from: Wave of Terror (Paperback)
For reasons of disclosure, I should reveal beforehand that the translator of this book, Erma Odrach, has asked me to review it. She has done excellent work making the translation flow in readable English and constructing the work from the manuscripts.

Theodore Odrach's "Wave of Terror" is a passionate novel describing the area around the Pinsk marshes, one of the more remote rural areas in Belarus, around 1940. The interesting aspect of choosing this period and setting is that it reveals an atmosphere and daily life of a rather ignored, but important, part of Soviet history. The Pinsk region was part of that section of Poland which was annexed by the USSR in 1939 after the German invasion of Poland, and as a result the setting of the novel is one in which the people of the region are only just introduced to the Soviet regime under Stalin. On the other hand, by 1940 the worst parts of the Stalinist purges were over with the execution of Yezhov, and at the same time the even greater cataclysm of World War II has not yet started for the locals. Therefore, the situation is one of an eerie silence, a stifling and oppressive waiting for what is to come. Odrach is very strong in setting and atmosphere, and brings the lived experience of this neglected area in this neglected period to life. No doubt the autobiographical elements of the book will have aided him in making it easy for Westerners anno 2010 to 'feel' the times and the minds of the people.

The book itself with regard to structure and style has up- and downsides. Its virtues are that Odrach has not only a great feeling for atmosphere, but he also has a strong grasp of characterization. His figures are somewhat 'types', representing particular types of people and particular social and political functions and attitudes one would find at that time, but they nonetheless come to life due to Odrach's subtle and understated way of making their character traits come out in dialogue and description. He manages to make them seem real figures despite their often one-sided depiction by having them act and interact and making these interactiona work remarkably true to life. It reminds one in that sense somewhat of the classical Jewish tales such as those of Isaac Bashevis Singer, which also brilliantly plays often fairly 'flat' characters off against each other by strong dialogue and maximally using the colorful setting as advantage. This is done well in "Wave of Terror", and it assures that even the characters hostile to the hero Kulik are still serious enough to be acceptable to the reader.

Downsides of the book are the rather stilted approach to structure. Odrach should have learned better the important lesson for a novel to 'show, not tell'; far too often the book impresses upon the reader the implication or conclusions the reader should draw from a given action when that should have been conveyed indirectly, by making it obviously follow from what is presented. In this, the decision to make the main character's thoughts appear despite him not being the narrator is a stylistically disadvantageous decision, which harms the flow of the book and makes it too didactic. Given how the book is for an important part (though by no means altogether) a political work, putting a decidedly Ukrainian nationalist viewpoint against the ideology of the USSR at the time, this didacticism is something to be very careful about. The nationalism already often gets out of hand and leads to some unintentionally funny passages when Kulik ponders upon "patriotism" and the "motherland" and the dissapearance of the Ukrainian people, none of which are immediately obvious to the reader, while at the same time the book attempts to establish the Ukrainian nature of the Pinsk region, which even now is still part of Belarus and had been Poland before. One sees a similar didacticism in the one-sidedness of the characters, as mentioned above; the hero Kulik is (from the narrator's standpoint) all virtuous, whereas Soviet officials are all bad, etc.

There are also very strong changes in mood and in tempo in the book, which switches back and forth from long monologues interieurs to action and dialogue rather abruptly and often. This creates a somewhat whirlwind-like disorienting effect, but which does fit the overall atmosphere of the book. It resembles Dostoyevsky somewhat in that sense, with the marked difference that Odrach does in one page what costs Dostoyevsky fifty to describe. On the other hand, the pace of such changes is sometimes too high, and it does not make it easy to get adjusted to each new situation the author presents.

All this is not so problematic as to defeat the book, however. It is quite possible to write a book that is somewhat politically didactic and yet can function as a real novel - Tressell's "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" is a classic example of this, as is to a lesser extent Emile Zola's "Germinal", both beloved classics of the left. Odrach's work is perhaps not of Zola's quality, but nonetheless very well readable. The book's atmosphere and flow and the functional but intriguing character interaction make it interesting to read from beginning to end, and it is certainly a very sympathetic look into a region and a period that has been much neglected despite being a time of much fear and anxiety. One does not need to be a convinced anti-Communist to realize that much of what Odrach writes must have been remembered from true life, even when tinged perhaps by some one-sidedness, and it is clearly an honest portrayal done with love for the population of the area. This is something that will always be appealing even long after the events have fortunately been left behind us.


The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
by Rory Stewart
Edition: Paperback

28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rory Stewart as proconsul in Iraq, 20 April 2010
This is a difficult book to review. It is the the chronicle of Rory Stewart, professional diplomat, adventurer, politician and all-round old school colonial officer. He details his efforts after his appointment as ad interim governor of the marshland province of Maysan in Iraq, with virtually unlimited powers and little or no help or information, somewhat like a Roman proconsul in a hostile province. Few people have been in anything remotely like this sort of position, so it is hard to find a standard to judge the book by.

"The Prince of the Marshes" is certainly a very informative book. It is astonishingly detailed in every aspect of the rule of Iraq in the early years of the occupation after the 2003 war, from the local tribal and religious leaders and their individual proclivities to the boardroom discussions with Paul Bremer. One gets a sense he leaves very little out that he was permitted to put in (likely security reasons proscribe some information). It is to some degree also a personal book, although not as much as his travelogue of Afghanistan in 2002, "The Places in Between" (The Places In Between), but given the more formal and impersonal nature of his job in Iraq that should come as no surprise. It is an intriguing and at times exciting book also. Stewart's deft attempts to engage with the many different power players in Maysan and their constantly shifting contradictory interests and alliances, and the sense of total disinformation and opacity of politics in Iraq, make for fascinating reading. His survival of various mob riots and militia offensives against his office are an extra thrilling diversion in between, although I'm sure Stewart at the time would have preferred it differently. He manages amazingly well to keep the narrative clear and structured despite the perpetual confusion around him, and a moderately informed reader should have no difficulty remembering names or meanings.

That said, there is also much missing from the book. Stewart says he wants the reader to make up their own mind as to the purpose and success of the occupation in Iraq, but precisely his lack of much reflection on this subject makes the point of the book somewhat unclear, informative as it is. He also insists that the use of political concepts to describe the situation in Iraq are wrong, whether it's talk of classes or of civil wars; instead, he insists it is all about the personal relations between the relevant individuals, and whether or not the 'reconstruction' of Iraq succeeds stands and falls with that. But he gives the reader absolutely no reason to believe that he is right about this, and neither does the history of empires and occupations of the past. Rory Stewart himself often reflects on how his position differs from that of the British colonial officer of olden times, who would be more or less permanently in one place and would have intimate knowledge of local conditions as well as a clear goal (maintaining the colonizer's power), whereas he is there very temporarily and barely knows Arabic. But this is all the more reason to disbelieve the idea that the personal attributes of this or that leader, whether they are American or Iraqi (like the eponymous Prince of the Marshes), matters very much to how events developed and will develop in Iraq. Stewart's refusal to do any systematic analysis is a result of the lack of knowledge and skills to govern Iraq on the part of the occupation, and yet he is not willing to acknowledge this but attempts to make a virtue of it. This is simply unconvincing.

It is true nonetheless that the book does well maintain a balance in its description of the occupation, and both proponents and opponents will be able to find ammunition for their position in it. On the whole, I would say it does not lend itself as well to the cause of the proponents; Stewart is eventually put in charge of the province of Dhi Qar which is even worse off than Maysan, and he leaves in both places in a spate of sectarian and nationalist violence. What is particularly important about the book with respect to 'success' or not in Iraq is not so much his own successes or failures, but the internal relations in Iraq itself as he portrays them. Despite the reformist-nationalist policies of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is clearly a deeply divided country; and not just by religion, but also economically. Regional and class divides in income and education are enormous, unemployment was and is very high, and the Iraqi secular left is strong among the workers but greatly hampered by the still very rural and underdeveloped nature of most of Iraq's countryside, as well as by the religious divides. Saddam's tyrannical policies against his own people and especially Shia and Kurdish rebels need little elaboration, but what is important is to also not overstate his socio-economic successes (although some of the problems were caused by the sanctions policy). This book gives some evidence of that. Nonetheless, it is not at all clear from "The Prince of the Marshes" that anyone in the occupation is at all capable of improving any of this, and indeed since occupation the socio-economic indicators have become much worse.

Overall, the "Prince of the Marshes" is fascinating and highly informative reading to get an impression of what contemporary Iraq is like and how difficult it is to govern or manage, whether by politicians or officers. It also gives some more insight into the already highly remarkable career of Rory Stewart, who is standing in the coming elections as candidate for the constituency of Penrith and the Border, unsurprisingly for the Conservative Party. Since he is almost certain to be elected there, one can expect some great political future for him in Britain too, given his indisputable talents and his Eton background. But this book is not the best to turn to for analysis of the political situation and prospects of Iraq.


The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain
The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain
by Paul Theroux
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Amusing tour of the British coast during the Falkland War, 20 April 2010
The acclaimed travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux lived in England for a long time, and yet until the very end of his stay there he had not written a travel book about it. In "The Kingdom by the Sea", he rectifies this situation by taking a trip by train and foot along the entirety of the British coast. Starting out from London, he travels southeast, follows the coast to Cornwall, then goes up via Devon to Wales and Scotland, crosses to Northern Ireland, and finally returns to do the eastern half. Since the trip was undertaken in 1982, it is a Britain in a different state than the one of today, although not too different. The Falkland War, the policies of Lady Thatcher and the resulting mass unemployment, the sense of poverty and decline, these are all the decor for Theroux's undertaking. The book also gives a perspective of a Britain that is past in a more practical way: he travels often by branch lines that have since been abolished, and there is definitely a sense of impending doom about the formerly excellent British Rail system noticable in this work.

Not that one would necessarily notice much of it - most people Theroux talks to say very little of interest at all, and the main interpretation and narration has to be done by Theroux himself, which is a contrast with most of his works. As a result, how interesting a part of the book is depends mainly on what section of the route he is travelling. The first part, where he 'does' the southeast and south of England, is rather boring; but as soon as he gets into Wales, the book picks up pace and variety, and becomes as entertainingly readable as most of Theroux's works. His usual chagrin is rather mellow in this work, and he is not nearly as vicious towards the UK as one might expect. The sections on Northern Ireland are particularly vivid and give a good indication of the ridiculous aspects of the Troubles in their effect (or lack thereof) on daily life.

Overall, it is a good travel book and a light read, giving a curious stranger's insight into the Britain of the Thatcher years.


The Steel Remains (Gollancz)
The Steel Remains (Gollancz)
by Richard Morgan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spectacular dark fantasy with gay themes, 16 April 2010
Richard K. Morgan is a British fantasy/sci-fi author known for his succesful dystopian cyberpunk-type novels. In "The Steel Remains", he has made a first successful foray into fantasy, while maintaining the usual 'noir' elements and the political cynicism of his works. The result is a highly readable, exciting and compelling work. It is in particular interesting because he takes, as fantasy after all to some degree inevitably requires, a number of clichés from the genre; but he manages to subvert them quite effectively. The reader often recognizes certain elements in the book as typical fantasy tropes (the nomadic barbarians, the Imperial City, the elf-type ethereal creatures, etc.), but the function they have in the story is almost always vastly different from the usual approach, and in this rests Morgan's cleverness. Moreover, despite the young and often educated readership of fantasy books, it is still very uncommon to have a gay protagonist or prominent homosexual themes in a novel. At least, such novels rarely go on to become successful in the mainstream as well.

"The Steel Remains" however manages to do this and in a way that in turn avoids the clichés and tropes of the genre of 'gay fiction', being much darker and much less gratifying than the usual 'gay novel' is. Nonetheless, it is to be expected that the petty, the unimaginative, the closed-minded and the neurotic would make a big deal out of the theme itself playing any role at all in what is mainly a swordfighting book, despite the prevalence of homosexuality and homoerotic elements in real life (especially in virtually all-male settings like armies). But any straight person who prejudges the book as uninteresting for this reason is depriving himself as much as if a gay person were to refuse to read "Romeo and Juliet" because it has straight themes.

Since the book is to be the first of a trilogy, the exact world in which it plays and the setting is not explained much, and the reader has to discover the rules of the world mainly on the go. This keeps the book fast-paced. The plot itself is easily enough explained: it traces the actions and interactions of the three main characters, a barbarian chieftain, a cynical war hero shunned for his sexuality, and a female warrior-vizier to the Emperor who is a last descendant of an ancient race. All are, as the book's cover says, "damaged veterans of the war against the Lizard Folk". Despite the silliness of this concept itself, the actual psychology is worked out very carefully and in great detail in their 'careers' since the last battle of that war, so that the book is already very far underway when the plot target eventually becomes visible. It turns out a strange power seems poised to invade the world from an unseen dimension, and through a great number of plot twists and turns, these three must reunite to stop them. It is difficult to say more without spoiling it, but suffice to say that despite the somewhat clichéd impression such a description might give, it is really quite refreshing, at least for a genre flooded with second-rate imitations and epigonism.

The book is fairly heavy on violence and sex, so this has to appeal to you to some degree for it to be worth reading - but then again, all evidence seems to show that most people do in fact enjoy this. Morgan's writing is fast, to the point, and believable, and his characters compelling. Fans experienced in reading fantasy will enjoy the noir take on the tropes, which (as is to be expected) suggest the atmosphere of the better kind of cyberpunk sci-fi. People interested for whatever reason in gay themes or at least some psychological real-world realism and originality of that kind inserted into a typical fantasy world will also do well to read this book.


A Companion to Marx's Capital
A Companion to Marx's Capital
by David Harvey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.69

33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent companion to Marx's Capital, Volume 1, 14 April 2010
David Harvey is not just one of the world's foremost social and economic geographers, but is also one of the world's foremost Marx interpreters. "A Companion to Marx's Capital" is the book form of a series of lectures on Capital, Volume 1, that he has annually held with his college students and which has famously been made available publicly in video format (he is currently fundraising for volume 2). Because of this, the book is not just only about Volume 1, but it is also written to be as accessible to a general public as possible. Moreover, it seeks only to explain, not to defend. Sometimes, this does lead to trouble - Harvey does not entirely seem to grasp that to explain the way a certain figure thought about a topic also means you have to show what arguments he himself would have used to defend his perspective, and when Harvey tries to substitute his own arguments for those of Marx, they are often not the more convincing for it. The book is somewhat weak on making the entirety seem convincing for that reason, but that is something easily solved by referring to his excellent other work, "The Limits to Capital" (Limits to Capital).

That said, the book is a systematic, clear and engaging explanation of the work, built on a chapter-by-chapter approach. Harvey recommends, especially for the difficult and abstract first chapters, to have a copy of Marx's "Capital", Vol. 1, with you while reading it - the Penguin edition is generally recommended (Capital: Critique of Political Economy v. 1 (Classics S.)). This is justified also because Marx himself, as Harvey shows, builds up his argument from chapter to chapter, both in terms of introducing ever new and more complicated concepts building on the old, and in terms of showing bit by bit what the contradictions in capitalism are and how capitalism unfolds as a result. Marx's approach is thoroughly steeped in a dynamic analysis which sees movement as the result of a clash of contradictions, in the tradition of Hegel in particular. Harvey does a deft job of explaining what this is and how it works out in the course of Marx's book.

There are of course points where one can have disagreements with Harvey's explanations, and I think at a few points this is warranted. He fails entirely to point out the actual analytical benefits of a value theory as opposed to just a price theory in his discussion of the chapter on money. Because the 'labor theory of value' is an absolutely essential and inalienable part of Marxist analysis, this is a serious problem. He does not explain the relation between industrial and financial capital very well in the chapter on capital and labor power (which he does do in his other major work). Finally, he does not give Marx's statements on the relation between 'historical and moral factors' as well as productivity to value and its flows the full attention it deserves, although admittedly that would reach fairly far for what is to be a basic introduction.

Nonetheless, overall the book is an excellent companion to the work of Marx, if one actually uses it in that way. Although I am very familiar with Marx's books, I have found that placing the two side by side and tracing the arguments as Harvey presents them through the chapters indeed allows for clear and easy insight into the difficult and often poorly written material to an extent that has helped me newly understand it too. This is no mean feat, and it will make the task of actually getting down and reading Capital, often seen as an impossible burden, all the lighter and easier to do. For this, the book is much recommended and a great contribution to popularizing Marx & Engels' enduring insights into society. For the deeper theoretical work, there are many others available.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 16, 2010 11:04 PM BST


The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean
The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean
by Paul Theroux
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining but sloppy, 22 Mar 2010
Being a big fan of travel writing in general and Paul Theroux in particular, I have read most of his books. "The Pillars of Hercules" is beyond doubt one of his most entertaining, erudite and readable. In this work, Theroux travels around the Mediterranean coast, attempting to go from one Pillar of Hercules, Gibraltar, to the other end without ever going by airplane (as is his usual rule). He does this in two sections - first a trip from Gibraltar through Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania to Corfu; and half a year later he then resumes his trip with a free cruise trip through the eastern part, finishing off in Morocco. The only nations he does not visit are Montenegro, Libya and Algeria, for security reasons. As usual with Theroux, along the way he perfectly describes a great number of interesting and curious people he meets, whether locals or fellow travellers, and he provides the sardonic commentary on the countries and events his readers have come to expect from him.

The book is full of allusion to other novelists on the region. Theroux clearly took a sizable pile of books about and from the Mediterranean with him, and this gives the trip an interesting literary character. Combine this with the much more overall optimistic tone he employs at the beginning of the book and his apologies for his negative approach to his trips, probably following on the somewhat critical reception his "The Happy Islands of Oceania" received because he was so unpleasant there, and the reader expects a rather uplifting romp through sunny lands. One is quickly disabused of this notion, however. Over time, Theroux falls back into his old pattern, but worse than usual. Normally, the fun of Theroux's writings is that he is cynical and critical, but nonetheless an excellent observer and considers carefully what the surface appearance of the places he visits really means. In this book he disappointingly fails in that regard. He seems to have more sympathy for a bunch of rich white do-nothings on a cruise ship than for the local population in the countries he travels through, perhaps influenced by the cruise company's decision to give him free berth in exchange for writing. His remarks upon the state of modern Greece in particular, but to a lesser extent also Slovenia and Egypt, are simply ignorant and pointless whining from an American who can't be bothered to be interested in what he sees.

Theroux can be witty and insightful when he really tries, as his passages on Italy, Turkey and Syria show, but when he gets bored he really becomes quite insufferable even to a fan like me. What makes this worse is not just the fact Theroux travels a lot to historical sightseeing type places, which he professes to dislike, making one wonder why he does so in the first place - but that he in fact goes so far as to make claims like "the Greeks were not Greek, but the descendants of Slavs and Albanian fishermen" is a sort of preposterous 19th century racist pseudo-anthropology. He pretends falsely that the Greek population supported the Colonels' regime, that they merely waste EU regional support funds in contrast to Italy (when in fact Greek living standards have risen as a result, and Italy is not remotely less corrupt than Greece is), and his ranting against the Greek attempts to preserve their monuments from abusive and disrespectful treatment by hordes of tourists makes him seem the worst stereotype of American travellers. He owes both the Greeks and the reader an apology there, and much the same can be said of his treatment of the Slovenes.

That being said, when he really tries in this book he truly is at his best. The book is informative, varied, interesting and well-written as always. His slightly mocking but not hostile descriptions of the individuals along his path are fantastic, and in particular the section of his trip dealing with Turkey (which justifiedly comes off much more civilized than in general Western perception) and Syria are enormously worth reading. This book would be a good one to read before continuing on to his "Dark Star Safari", which sets out from Egypt.


The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific
The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific
by Paul Theroux
Edition: Paperback
Price: £16.00

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Perhaps his least enjoyable work, 18 Mar 2010
Most people, when they think of Polynesia, think of warm weather, pleasant beaches and overall bliss. Not so with this Paul Theroux travel book through Oceania, despite the book's title: the book was written directly after the author's painful breakup with his first wife. Since Theroux is generally not a man to be easily impressed by what he sees, one can imagine the general tone of the work. Indeed its sombreness together with the rather repetitive nature of his island trip, where for most pages he does not much else than paddle in his kayak and occasionally talk to uninterested locals and eat taro, make for less invigorating reading than some of Theroux's other travel novels.

This isn't to say the book is no fun at all. His descriptive qualities did not suffer, so the amazing island landscapes are vividly pictured as ever as he travels by them. His analysis and depiction of the island societies is very interesting, in particular in how he emphasizes the differences between those islands. Not only are the islands of Micronesia quite different from Polynesia as their societies and attitudes go, but the internal differences are sizable too. Theroux had also not lost his critical edge, and he unfailingly captures the negative consequences of many islands' dependence on foreign states (New Zealand, France) or the still almost feudal nature of Tongan social relations. Sometimes he goes a bit overboard on this: his hostility towards Japanese is remarkable in this book (and not at all as pronounced in later works). Although indeed there is much to be said against the tourist exploitation of these islands and the destructive nature of such enterprise, and Theroux quite well points this out, his specific hostility towards Japan takes on almost racist forms. Another such thing is his litany against French colonialism and nuclear testing in the Pacific; this indeed is terrible and disgusting, make no mistake, but he does not mention in context for example the British-American exploitation of Diego Garcia in a similar manner.

Nonetheless, Theroux shows very well how many of these paradise islands are, if they are still such, paradises despite the influx of visitors. The introduction of a monetary and commodity economy in societies that used to be based around gift relations has made things much worse, breaking social ties and reducing many islanders to drunks dependent on handouts from colonial owners or dubious salesmen with a total loss of interest in their traditional culture. Now this is always historically the case, and sometimes is justified in the name of Progress. But in the case of the islands Theroux describes, not much good comes in its stead: the living standards and life expectancy are still generally low, and there is not much use for cars, telephones, or other such accoutrements of modernity. While it does nobody any good to want to preserve Noble Savages as if their societies are mere open-air musea, in the case of Oceanic tourism there is good reason to be morose.

On the whole, though, this book lacks some of the energy and variety that make Theroux's other works such page-turners. This is probably not really the author's fault: it is just in the nature of his camping trip by boat that most time is spent in and around fairly similar island landscapes, however beautiful, and talking about little of interest with lethargic locals. This frankly gets somewhat boring to read after a while, although it is impossible to imagine this being boring in real life. There are some interesting tidbits that change the atmosphere temporarily, such as when he meets the former Prime Minister David Lange and converses with him, or the interviews with luminaries such as the King of Tonga and the Governor-General of New Zealand. Also Hawaii, the final stage of his trip, gives an interesting window back onto the 'regular' world, and it is no coincidence that the book ends on a happier note there, as Theroux (now remarried) spends half his time living there. For Theroux fans, I can certainly recommend reading this book as part of the collection. But for those new to the author, I would not start here.


In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures (Radical Thinkers Series 3)
In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures (Radical Thinkers Series 3)
by Aijaz Ahmad
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.76

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marxism against postcolonial theory, 13 Mar 2010
This publication of "In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literatures" is a reprint from Aijaz Ahmad's essential 1992 critique on postcolonial thought and the associated 'Third Worldism' of the First World intellectuals. Writing from a consistent and sensible Marxist perspective, Ahmad, a Pakistani working in India, criticizes the one-sidedness and posturing prevalent in so much hip academic postcolonial theory. Although the book itself is not entirely free of the terrible use of language that is the hallmark of this theoretical approach, with the occasional "discourse", "mapping" and "interrogating" making their appearance, Ahmad succeeds very well at dissecting the errors and bad faith that are at the core of the postcolonial enterprise in Western academia.

The first of these errors is the idealism of postcolonial theory. That is, postcolonial theorists are uninterested in economics, in politics, even in such simple things as facts and causes; all these are mere 'narratives', and any attempt at systematically analyzing those or bringing them into an analysis of literature is to be derided as 'totalizing narratives', the gravest crime in this branch of academia. As a result, each text and each author is a disembodied whole. No understanding of nation or class exists, because all analyses are just narratives, and as a result all theory is reduced to stories about stories, with no end and no beginning, and no grounding in any reality. At the same time, Ahmad notes that they tend to support the concept of 'Third World literature' or 'Subaltern studies', implying that there is a unity in the developing world that makes any text from there, or in some arbitrary manner associated with it, subversive and superior for that reason alone. This completely ignores the great differentiation in class, culture, politics and religion that exists within and between the various developing natures. It also utterly fails to properly analyze the position of given 'Third World writers' within this - Ahmad points to the case of Rabindranath Tagore, who is considered a canonical 'Subaltern' writer, despite the fact that within the context of Indian literature his works are considered conservative and elite. As Aijaz Ahmad notes, it is no coincidence that much of this postcolonial paradigm has been and is being produced by academics who are emigrants from developing nations within the developed world, and as relatively upper class people from poor countries benefit the most from a mode of analysis that contrasts only the West and the rest (in favor of the latter), while ignoring or denying any internal differentiations.

Much of the book is taken up by a systematic study of the works of Fredric Jameson, Edward Said and Salman Rushdie in this context. Rushdie gets a short treatment, where Ahmad relativizes his importance in literature and somewhat gratuitously accuses him of poorly portraying women. Jameson he criticizes for using the concept of the three worlds in such a manner that he conceives of the First as capitalist, the Second as socialist, and the Third as fundamentally neither. Ahmad correctly objects that the Third is just as capitalist as the rest, but simply suffers a more backwards capitalism, and that therefore to read one 'Third World literature' of nationalism into the varied texts from these nations is to fundamentally misunderstand their political economic position. It is however somewhat confusing that Ahmad himself takes 'Three Worlds Theory' the preposterous idea of late Maoism that the 'Second world' was imperialist like the First and therefore didn't really count; only at the end of the book does he differentiate this from the common use of the worlds for the different development positions relatively, which is the sense I use it. In that context the somewhat dated nature of the book can be noted, since the 'Second World' has entirely lost its reality in the sense Ahmad uses it. Moreover, 'Third Worldism' in the sense of anti-imperialism is a real politics and has a distinct relation to a materialist and empirical approach of the kind he favors. Ahmad does go into it somewhat, but since the focus is on literature only, there is not much room to go into this use of the term.

Along the same lines, the book also contains a discussion of Marx' articles on India, where Ahmad defends Marx from an all too easy reading of his works as Orientalist in the sense of Edward Said, whose many inconsistencies and contradictions with regard to his own position on the 'Third World' he deftly exposes. Finally, there is a chapter that goes into his proposal for a program to study (more) systematically the comparative literature of India with an eye to the idea of an 'Indian literature'. This essay is interesting and fits the theme of the book, but very much written for insiders - much of it will be difficult to follow if you are not quite familiar with Indian literature and Indian history already.

It is a pity that Ahmad does not go into major postcolonial academic authors in more depth - it would have been highly useful if he could have thoroughly criticized the likes of Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak and other charlatans from the perspective of a materialism that understands the way in which all text is embedded in a real social context from which it cannot be dislodged. Similarly, one would wish he had gone more into the issue of why postcolonial theory and its relatives, postmodernism and poststructuralism, are characterized by such awful writing, unnecessary overabstraction and deliberately nebulous use of terms. There is much to be said about the way in which this constitutes a conscious retreat of academic domains that used to be critical, under pressure from liberal resurgence on the one hand and loss of faith in the power of facts to confirm and defend the leftist worldview on the other hand. But again, this book was published in 1992 and much of this is a development that reached its apogee after it. It is precisely the force of Ahmad's critique and the fresh air he lets into the stale basement of postcolonialism that make one want to read more.
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On The Black Hill (Vintage Classics)
On The Black Hill (Vintage Classics)
by Bruce Chatwin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars On the Black Hill, 13 Mar 2010
Bruce Chatwin, the writer of this novel, is mainly known for his travel books. Exotic places and reflections on travelling were his specialty. Yet "On the Black Hill" is possibly his best book, though set entirely in as unexotic a locale as possible, the borderlands between Wales and England. Chatwin's evocation of the peculiar atmosphere of a small, backwards farming community in Wales and the odd characters it produces is at once more lively and more tragic than any travel book could be.

The book revolves around a more or less chronological biography of twin brothers in a farmstead in Wales, written in sequential flashbacks. There is something of Xavier de Maistre in this: at the beginning of the novel, the twins are portrayed at the end of their life, living together in their isolated farm with a number of odd and antique items around them. These items then frame the telling of the tale of their life and of the people they encountered in it, so that in the telling each item becomes familiar and takes up its place in the sentimental narrative of the twins' experiences. In this manner, some of the attachment they have for their own place and their few possessions is projected onto the reader, which creates very skilfully a sense of identification with what are otherwise two very obviously highly weird people in a rather backwards and uninviting rural village.

Chatwin's book is remarkable because it is very compelling, a page-turner almost, while almost nothing of significance happens in it. But because the brothers grow up so stunted by their upbringing and environment, and because of the total social and mental helplessness of all people in the community, many events that would normally be considered minor and of little impact in our lives become enormous incursions into the farm life. This gives them a meaning and a tragic nature one would not normally assign them. At no point does the book even leave the direct surroundings of the Welsh borderlands, and yet it is more intriguing than many a story of Patagonia. An accomplishment.


The Places In Between
The Places In Between
by Rory Stewart
Edition: Paperback

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Following in Babur's footsteps, 13 Mar 2010
This review is from: The Places In Between (Paperback)
"The Places in Between" is the chronicle of Rory Stewart's journey by foot from Herat to Kabul, accompanied by nothing else but the occasional villager or passing soldier and his local dog, named Babur. This is a fitting name because Stewart, who would later be appointed to an important government post in occupied Iraq (The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq), not only wants to explore the beautiful Afghan landscape but also study the traces of its history in the present. The original Babur was one of the few leaders in Afghan history who had united the whole territory and who considered it central to his empire, and he is particularly interesting because he left an autobiographical text which is remarkable for its honesty, its objectivity, and its insight into the norms of those days. With these two Baburs, knowledge of local language and customs, and a bag full of medication, Rory Stewart sets out to traverse the sublime deserts and snow-capped mountains of central Afghanistan.

The tale is very well written and makes for easy and highly compelling reading. It is a telling fact that he makes his journey, which consists in essence out of endlessly repeated harsh day marches from one village chief's tent to the next, interesting to people who have never even been near the area. Stewart is very nonjudgmental overall, probably in part because he is entirely reliant on the kindness of strangers (who are often as hostile as they are hospitable to travellers) in the classic manner of travel writing. The book sheds some light on the highly complicated chain of political and ethnic conflicts within Afghanistan - almost every Afghan male has fought in at least one, if not more, war in the country. It is clear that loyalties are usually not quite as clear-cut as one would like them to be in order to understand them: very often the same feudal lords who had opposed the Taliban later joined them, and sometimes Iran-supported islamists are the greatest enemies of local chieftains, and so forth. Stewart's book does not really delve into political analysis, but certainly shows 'ad oculos' what the real meaning of politics is in Afghanistan.

All this is not to say that Stewart is necessarily an entirely reliable guide. The American edition of the book indicates that Rick Loomis took pictures of him along the way, but having a cameraman along is not mentioned anywhere. Moreover, it is clear from the facts that Stewart has been in the British Army, knows Dari as well as local politics thoroughly, has been involved with the Kennedy School of Government and finally his later appointment as governor in the occupying government in Iraq, that it is highly likely that he is a spy of some sort. Given this fact, the fact that Stewart was allowed to undertake his trip at all is quite remarkable, and it does seem some strings were pulled to make it possible. Of course, he himself says nothing about this. The result in any case is an insightful and highly readable book that will appeal to anyone interested in Afghanistan.


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