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PJ Nasser (UK)

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Imperium
Imperium
by Robert Harris
Edition: Hardcover

12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As good as historical fiction gets, 13 Jan. 2007
This review is from: Imperium (Hardcover)
Robert Harris is a real professional. I felt 'secure' from about the second paragraph in the sense that I was sure I would not be let down. I mean that he wouldn't get bogged down in historical detail and yet the detail would be accurate; that he wouldn't pull any cheap tricks for cheap thrills; that I wouldn't be able to sum up and put away the main characters as mere vehicles for plot. He did not disappoint.

It is not a thriller, though there is tension, even when you know the story. Cicero is neither good, not bad, but he is damn interesting. Harris has been around men of power and knows how ambition intertwines with ideals and expediency with good intentions. His Cicero is someone you would like to know, but know you would never get close to.

Highly recommended. There must be a sequel.


The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization
by Bryan Ward-Perkins
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.89

59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Consequences of the Fall, 1 Oct. 2006
<em>The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilisation</em> by Bryan Ward-Perkins is politically important to us now. It may seem strange that a study of (mostly) Western Europe between 400 and 800 should be 'topical'. The Roman Empire fell and things went dark, and that's it. Roman Empire, then Dark Ages. Right? Well, no, actually. That is not now the view in Academe.

One of the most popular and flourishing areas of classical studies in recent decades has been what is termed Late Antiquity, applied to the years between 250 and 800. Historians of Late Antiquity prefer not to speak of 'decline', 'fall' or even 'crisis' with regard to Rome, but rather of 'transition', 'change' and 'transformation' and the rise of Christianity, Islam and Medieval civilisation. It is "a distinctive and quite decisive period of history that stands on its own" rather than "the unravelling of a once glorious and 'higher' state of civilisation". Not only that, but they downplay the idea of invasion and conquest on the part of the barbarian tribes. Instead they talk about the barbarian desire to be included in the Roman Empire and Rome's attempt to accommodate them, or even make use of them for defence of the Empire itself. Thus was Rome not destroyed but transformed into another type of civilisation, not inferior, only different. In the words of two American historians, this transition occurred in a "natural, organic and ierenic manner" and we should not "problematize the barbarian settlements". (Does that last verb sound a warning to you? Is this beginning to sound familiar?)

So we don't talk of the fall of a civilisation, but of the rise of a different culture. We don't talk of agression, victory or defeat, but of accommodation and transformation. Above all, we don't make value judgements and claim that this or that civilisation was 'better' than another. In fact, we don't talk about civilisation at all with its connotations of superiority and exclusion; we talk about cultures, and we start from the assumption that all cultures are equal, if different, and must be viewed from their own perspective. (I'm sure this is starting to sound very, very familiar.)

Think about the Romans, and you're thinking about now. Neil Faulkner in <em>The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain</em> likens the Roman influence on the island as comparable to the worst effects of imperialism and capitalism. He goes on to say that the period after the Roman evacuation in the early 400s was a "short golden age" of a people finally free of exploitation. In the popular realm, there's Terry Jones telling us that the much-maligned barbarians were so much more than "the Roman killing-machine that marched out to rob and ruin them". Julius Caesar "makes himself 'Protector of the Gauls'. And by the time he's finished protecting them, he's killed or enslaved two million and he owns the whole of Gaul." Of course, both Faulkner and Jones are really talking about something else: "It's the same as Bush and Blair saying that they're going to rescue the Iraqis from that dreadful leader and killing a quarter-million in the process."

For Faulkner, Jones and their ilk, the Romans are the real 'baddies', and the others by consequence are the 'goodies'. However, there's no need to indulge in this kind of childishness to end up in just as absurd a place. If you take the multi-cultural view propogated by scholars of Late Antiquity, and view what happened in the 5th Century as merely an accommodation and transition to one culture to another of equal status, then you are led into a sort of quietism. If nothing was really lost, why bother defending it? If it is just a smooth change of state, why not just go with the flow and adjust your tastes accordingly?

Ward-Perkins asks a simple question of the archeological evidence: what was the effect of the collapse of the Roman Empire on the lives of ordinary people?

The evidence is obviously limited to those things that last. In this case, that means: pottery, roof-tiles, coins, buildings. To which he adds some other data: population density, literary ephemeria; evidence of exports and imports. The story told by the archeological evidence in all these areas is basically the same: from a sophisticated, widespread industrialised economy that could offer high-quality goods to even the lower strata of society, Europe descended into a fragmented, moneyless economy at a level of sophistication and production well below that of pre-Roman times, and that the ones to suffer this decline most were the 'common people'.

Ward-Perkins is conscientiously, fixedly materialistic in his analysis. He does not pronounce on the moral qualities of the Romans, on their spiritual status. He does not say that they were better people than the Celts, or the Visigoths, or the Alani. He does not reiterate what the Romans left behind for us to make use of, or laud the cultural achievements of their culture. However, he demonstrates that the available evidence all points towards an economic cataclysm for ordinary folk like me and you. That what the Roman economy attained for its people is comparable to what our economy has given us. That its decline was no smooth transition to another, different, though not inferior, culture. It was a disaster, but would be as nothing compared to what would happen now if we threw away what we have.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 3, 2009 4:58 PM BST


The Road to Serfdom (Routledge Classics)
The Road to Serfdom (Routledge Classics)
by F. A. Hayek
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.79

141 of 152 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Liberalism Redux, 14 Jun. 2006
The thesis of this book is quite a simple one. No one person or group of people can possibly have enough knowledge to effectively run an economy. No-one is able to collect and make use of sufficient information even about the past, let alone the present. Any attempt, therefore, to plan the future is bound to fail. Hayek goes on to postulate that this failure must result in the rule of a dictator as a last desperate fallback to take command of the spiralling chaos. The experience he had in mind, of course, was Nazi Germany whose fate he saw as ineluctable from the birth of the German welfare state in the late 19th Century. The command economy signifies the submission of the individual to the dictates of the planners in whose hands is concentrated the power that was once dispersed among many industrialists. The individual is thus reduced to the condition of the serf who ends up without even the power to sell his labour to a higher bidder.

This is a defence of private property, and the responsibility of the individual for his own fate whatever it may be. It is not libertarian; it does not wish to whittle down the power of the state to a bare minimum. However, aside from the legislation of basic standards, it argues for the exclusion of centralised power from the quick of economic life and the enabling of choice even to the poorest. It is a fundamental text of what was once called liberalism, and is as relevant today as it ever was.


The Leopard (Everyman's Library Classics)
The Leopard (Everyman's Library Classics)
by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.08

56 of 59 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Clear Vision, 24 May 2006
The Leopard is a strange novel. It was the only book written and published by Giovanni Tomasi di Lampedusa, last scion of a decadent Sicilian noble family. He wrote it towards the end of an indolent life and didn't live to see it brought into the world by the publishing house, Feltrinelli. It doesn't have a plot; to recount what happens would make it sound like a biography leavened with social history. It is a book about an aristocrat by an aristocrat recalling the passing of an age of aristocracy, and yet one that would have made a lot of sense to the Marxist literary culture of 1950s Italy. Its outlook is one of weary disillusionment that holds out little hope of social improvement or even personal contentment. It sounds dreadfully depressing, doesn't it? Lampedusa himself said once, "It is, I fear, rubbish." Actually, it is neither.

At its heart, there is one character: Fabrizio Corbero, Prince of Salina, The Leopard. It is in the portrayal of this man, and through his eyes, that of Sicily and its people that the quality of The Leopard lies. Lampedusa's eye is very sharp and sensitive to the smallest fluctuations of mood and motive, to the currents of history that pass through, or by, the characters and to the contradictions that sit comfortably together in every moment. One example of many. Salina is out hunting with the parish priest and they bring down a rabbit. They are out of sight of any human habitation in a land that would have looked the same to the Phoenicians, Dorians and Ionians 2,000 years before. The two hunters approach the fatally wounded prey and Don Fabrizio is fixed upon by "eyes that showed no reproof, but were full of a stunned shock towards the whole order of things ... the animal was dying tortured by an anxious hope of salvation, imagining its escape when it was already done for, just like so many men...a shiver went through the small body and it died; Don Fabrizio and Tumeo had had their sport; the first had even felt, in addition to the thrill of killing, the comfort of compassion."

In the space of two paragraphs, one incident and a meeting of eyes, Lampedusa is able compress the relationship of a landscape to its inhabitants, the reactions of men to history, the smallness of individual lives, and yet also the greatness of one life passing and the contradictory feelings of those who have caused it to pass.

There is mush else in The Leopard: a love story combining cynicism, class survival and a powerful eroticism; a country tale involving Salina's 'house priest', the Jesuit Father Pirrone and his family; the frustrated lives of the daughters of the house; the rising middle classes. Each chapter is devoted to a day or couple of weeks stretching from June 1860 to 1910 - from the exploits of Garibaldi and the Thousand to last days of the spinster daughters and the fiftieth anniversary of the establisment of the Kingdom of Italy. Though there are lapses, particularly when the author gives way to the social theorist and delivers lectures on the qualities of the Sicilians and its aristocracy, the quality of vision that Lampedusa's writing grants to the reader makes this book one of the 20th Century masterpieces of Italian literature.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 12, 2012 4:19 AM GMT


The Shadow Of The Wind
The Shadow Of The Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great read, but fades, 1 May 2006
This review is from: The Shadow Of The Wind (Paperback)
I enjoyed this, and read it in great gulps several nights stopping only because my eyes wouldn't stay open. It's a labyrinth story, the main character having to dive into the stories of many people to come to the bottom and so escape. It uses the old conceit of a book that becomes so important to the character that it is the springboard of the action. Here there is a further twist. The book is itself called The Shadow of the Wind, and the only hint of its contents we get makes it sound suspiciously like the one we are reading. For the narrator, Daniel Sampere, the search for the book's author, Julián Carax, is both a mystery that must be resolved and a replay of the book's love plot, which is in itself inspired by Carax's affair with Penelope.

So we have a mystery, a love story (actually, several), and quite a few other genre elements as well. It is an historical novel whose chronological setting runs from early in the 20th Century to 1955. It is also a gothic novel: the dark, disfigured Laín Coubert obsessively seeking out all of Carax's books to burn them; rich families with dreaded secrets destroyed by them; love that rules lives and mutilates its victims; resentment grown to driving hatred running through the whole.

There is also one very memorable character, Fermín Romero de Torres, who is the one that gives the key to the tone of the novel. He is a filthy, almost skeletal beggar, with horrendous scars all over his back, taken up by the narrator and his father to work in their bookshop. He is a great success, hunting down books in hours. He's also read everything, has the experience of 10 men, and is witty, to boot. Some examples:

As a child, I felt the call of poetry and wanted to be a Sophocles or a Virgil, because tragedy and dead languages give me goose pimples.

Like the good ape he is, man is a social animal, characterised by cronyism, nepotism, corruption and gossip. That's the intrinsic blueprint for our "ethical behaviour". It's pure biology.

- This business of courtship is like a tango: absurd and pure embellishment. But you're the man and you must take the lead.

- The lead? Me?

- What do you expect. One has to pay some price for being able to piss standing up.

Despite all these pleasures, mine diminished the closer I got to the end. One of the main reasons for this was the abuse of point of view. Much of the narration depends on testimony, either oral or written. In both, the surrogate narrators know too much, see too far and too deeply into the hearts and minds of others. This never happens with the main narrator, Daniel; only with his witnesses. It is especially flagrant in Nuria's long letter that basically resolves all the mysteries. She describes her husband's meeting with Carax (at which she was not present) in exactly the same way as she does her own experiences.

I think the gothic aspects started to wear on me, as well. The friendship that knows no bounds; self-sacrifice to left and right; the love that cannot die; irredeemable, implacable hatred. It's rather tiring after a while. By the end, I didn't really care that much what happened. Nevertheless, a good read.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 29, 2011 4:21 PM BST


Ovid (Marcus Corvinus Mysteries)
Ovid (Marcus Corvinus Mysteries)
by David Wishart
Edition: Paperback

11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Raymond Chandler in Tiberian Rome, 1 May 2006
This, Wishart's second book, is too laddish for my tastes. The main character, Marcus Corvinus, starts boozing before lunch, is cynical about anyone close to power (the 'arselickers') and until he meets Ovid's step-daughter, comes into contact only with women you pay by the half-hour. The one-liners never dry up, and though many are good, I felt battered after not too long. Mix in a plot involving a conspiracy worthy of Oliver Stone, and you have a book that this simple reader found exhausting to follow.

If you read thrillers set in Ancient Rome in order to get a feel for the history, then this one will disappoint. Unlike Steven Saylor who is content to flesh out the known story with a light touch, Wishart lets his imagination go large strong-arming a famous Roman defeat (the Teutoburg Forest) into the centre of a complex and totally unscrupulous conspiracy. Though not entirely impossible, it is so unlikely that it becomes a form of fantasy rather than a historical novel.


The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Quartet encounters)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Quartet encounters)
by Giorgio Bassani
Edition: Paperback

19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Luminous in the shadows, 27 April 2006
A luminous novel, all the more so for the storm that threatens.

It is set in Ferrara mostly between the autumn of 1938 and the summer of the following year. Interesting times. Mussolini's 'racial laws' have just come into force. Their impact on the life of the Jewish narrator is not, at first, that serious: he is ejected from his tennis club. Indeed, for the door that has been closed on him, another more interesting one immediately opens: that to the garden of the Finzi-Continis. This wealthy Jewish family has long led a reclusive existence, the parents leaving their grounds only for the sabbath, the two children educated at home. The narrator knows both Alberto and Micol (they come to his school annually for the exams) but has had very little contact with them. Nevertheless, Micol has always drawn his eye, and at the new 'tennis club' that meets now every afternoon of that autumn, the attraction grows and seems to be reciprocated. Yet, when the winter descends on the town, nothing has 'happened', and soon Micol departs for Venice to complete her degree. When she returns, and he tries to move the relationship on, she rejects him saying that two people so similar could not be in love. He makes a fool of himself in ways familiar to us all, but eventually is able to accept what can never be.

It's a tale of first love and of becoming a man. In the background, there is the social exclusion of the racial laws, the slide towards war and the impending holocaust. Obviously the character of the unnamed narrator (it is only in the film that he acquires a name, Giorgio) is not aware of all this, but the writer is. For this book is an act of witness, though not (as with Primo Levi) of the Holocaust itself, but of the many pasts that it wiped from the face of the earth. Bassani wants to make some of those pasts live again, to rescue them from oblivion, to skirt death using the instrument of the creative memory.

Death is ever present. Our first sight of Ferrara is the massive, almost gaudy, tomb of the Finzi-Contini family. The generation that built it is now housed inside, but of the generation that followed (the four that we know - Professor Ermanno, Signora Olga, Alberto and Micol plus the first-born, Guido), only two are commemorated: Guido, who died very young and Alberto, laid there riddled with cancer in 1940. There are three missing, dead but also disappeared, their particular fates unrecorded.

The achievement of the novel is that he is able to evoke the living, breathing fascination of these characters and, in particular, of Micol. She is certainly a young woman seen through the eyes of a young man in love, but not limited by that. She is beyond him, something both mysterious and luminous and following a path of her own. He 'becomes a man' in the moment he is able to acknowledge that. What she might have become is impossible to say - he, and therefore, we - do not understand her enough to even speculate. But she lives as a character on these pages, and seems to come from beyond them. It says so much for this novel that he makes us feel the horror of the unimagined slaughter to come just through the awareness that it destroyed such a person as Micol.

There are a lot more reasons than this to praise The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I don't need any more to make me re-read it.


The Eagle's Conquest (Eagles of the Empire 2)
The Eagle's Conquest (Eagles of the Empire 2)
by Simon Scarrow
Edition: Paperback

32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Battles, conspiracy and then some, 14 April 2006
The second in the series follows the legions of Claudius from their beachhead near Rutupiae to the battles on the Medway, Thames and before Camulodunum (Colchester). It moves at a great pace making use of several plot threads to keep tension high. As before, the main characters, Cato and Centurion Macro, unify all the threads from the terror and exultation of battle through the politics of military strategy to the machinations of conspiracy.

Scarrow does battles extremely well, if always at the service of plot. Confusion never lasts long; the reader always knows what part the detail plays in the whole picture. The fight is not clean, but it is clear, and Scarrow is able to draw out the action so that every battle has its own arc and could be extracted and read for itself.

Cato is seen to grow in this book. The action in the first was dominated by his need to prove himself; here, though his part is often heroic, he must also come to terms with helplessness and the aftermath of slaughter. His infatuation with the slavegirl, Lavinia, continues and plays a part in the machinations of Vitellius to assassinate the Emperor. Cato is decisive at the denouement of this conspiracy, but Scarrow does not allow him to take the hero's palm - a sign that the book is a little more than a boys' own adventure.

There is, as well, another point of view for Cato to understand and absorb: that of the conquered. Nisus is a surgeon and from North Africa, not only Carthaginian but a direct descendent of Hannibal! He voices the opinion that some might not be grateful for the benefits of Roman civilisation, that they might have been happier as they were. We're not told what Cato makes of this, and Nisus is soon involved in grand conspiracy. It is not clear if the seditious sentiments he uttered were merely a ploy by the author to justify the character's eventual treachery, or if they portend an important theme for the other books. I was a little surprised by the inclusion of these thoughts; they interrupted the flow of the narrative in what might have been an interesting way.

The prose does not hold you up. Nouns have immediate call on their tabloid adjective: "crush the enemy in an iron vice; deadly efficiency; an icy dread; bleak despair; the ruthless efficiency of vigorous training; the grim reality of their predicament". At times he feels the need to make use of every note taken during research - as a boat moors, who throws every rope to whom for it to be tied to every mooring post. However, these are small faults in a fast-moving narrative set in an exotic Britain.


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