45 of 53 people found the following review helpful
The most beautiful book I've read, but not the best history,
By A Customer
This review is from: Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (Paperback)
This book divides opinion in those who read it. To make a gross generalisation, those towards the right see it as overly critical of the Israelis and the US, those towards the left as the real experience Lebanon and its people, which just so happened to suffer from their involvement.
Personally, as a great admirer of Robert Fisk's journalism in The Independent I tend toward the latter, however, there are some problems with Pity The Nation as a historical account.
The wider historical events surrounding Lebanon's history are underdeveloped. Vital actions that shaped the region (for example the Arab-Israeli wars) are neglected. While this is in some ways an unfair criticism (after all, this is a book about Lebanon) without wider historical context the actions of key players are not sufficiently explained, a problem I found as this was the first book I read on the Middle East.
Also, as a journalist's account, it sometimes lacks the cohesion of an academic's historical analysis. For example, Orlando Figes' account of the Russian Revolution (a different topic I know, but the principle is still valid) has a framework of a political, social and economic history through which he weaves the stories of individuals. This allows him to give the sweeping narrative depth. Without such a clearly explained political, social and economic history, Pity The Nation is so full of personal accounts that it can get bogged down in the Lebanon's sheer complexity.
However both of my criticisms reflect not failings in the book but in what I (and other readers, perhaps) expected. This is not an academic account of Middle East history; this is the account of a journalist, reporting what he saw (and lived, his home being in Beirut). And he does it extraordinarily well. Every account of a tragedy or personal story is emotive, informative and beautifully described. He obviously loves Lebanon and this seeps through the pages of his book. The descriptions are so vivid that it feels like you can smell the orange groves and feel the electricity in the air as a storm rolls in off the Mediterranean. This makes the tales of Lebanon's people even harder to read. 'Touching', 'moving' and 'tragic' seem clichéd and inadequate to describe his accounts of real lives, real people, which have been destroyed. Yet even when on the verge of impenetrable bleakness, a dark sense of humour shows through. In one case he describes being cautioned for a traffic offence during the siege of Beirut in 1982, and in another he mentions a man who hijacked a plane bound for Beirut and ordered it to fly to... Beirut.
Overall, this account represents the best in foreign reporting. Lebanon was not a place Robert Fisk was viewing from the outside; it was his home. He has a deep understanding of events, a potent desire to find the truth and a great talent for expressing the experience of real people. Pity The Nation is the result, and it deserves to be read by as many people as possible.