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Sunday 27 May 2012

Review: John Lanchester, Capital

This is a long book (577 pages in my 2012 Faber hardback) and I read it in sittings, a method authorised by its four Parts and 107 Chapters.

John Lanchester knows how to write and knows how to craft. He has previously written novels (good ones) and in addition Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay - an excellent non-fiction introduction to the global financial crisis.

In Capital he deploys his talents as both novelist and commentator. Capital is both a Whodunnit novel set in London and a sustained commentary on the way London's economy works to structure and colour people's lives. Lanchester held my interest on both accounts.

London is the whole world in one city (Ken Livingstone) and Lanchester almost crams the whole world into one street, Pepys Road. He has a City trader and his wife, an elderly woman representative of those who lived in the road before it was gentrified, an Asian shop keeping family, a Premier League footballer (but brought from Senegal)and his minder, a failed asylum seeker from Zimbabwe, a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, Banksy under the name of Smitty. And he has the Metropolitan Police. There is no one from the LGBT community, an omission which I guess is deliberate.

When you craft characters for a novel, they take on a life of their own, and at the same time the author comes to like them or loathe them. Lanchester makes it clear who he has come to like (morally approve of) and who he dislikes. But he leaves some characters ambiguous and others morally neutral. He also has Views about London and deploys those effectively - for example, when writing about the way life is structured around alcohol.

Lanchester resolves his quite simple but effective Whodunnit; he grants unambiguous happiness to just a couple of his characters; and he leaves the lives of others unresolved for us to ponder.

In only one case did I feel he drops the thread, forgetting that he has given Quentina a love interest which might have provided her with a Rescuer in her time of trouble.

This is a subtle book with broad sympathies. The portraits are carefully informed, the London backdrop has verisimilitude. Not on every page, but quite frequently, Lanchester can be very funny.

For novels, I am obliged to end with a recommendation, in this case: Highly Recommended.

Thursday 24 May 2012

Review: Andrew Miller, Pure

On a long journey, you might finish this 300 page novel at one sitting. I thought I might do so, but the pace and decisiveness of the first two hundred pages does slacken into something less certain as Andrew Miller draw his story to a close.

Paris before the Revolution is one of those places which can be turned into the setting for a fiction with reasonable confidence. A back catalogue of novels and films sets the parameters of verisimilitude. Nothing in Andrew Miller's book struck me as anachronistic or wrong. There is much evocative detail.

The story is a work of imagination constrained by a delimited time and place of action. In 1785, the government decides to clear the overflowing and unhealthy body- and bone-packed cemetery of the Innocents in the centre of Paris. Andrew Miller imagines the year-long work being entrusted to a young engineer and what must have been involved in carrying it out. It is here that there is much credible detail.

Along the way, there is attempted murder, rape, suicide, romance and revolutionary stirrings done with enough conviction and craft to make us care about what happens to whom.

There is much which is macabre and disconcerting, but Miller adopts a brisk - perhaps dandyish - style which carries us above the stench of the graveyard and the charnel house. And with numerous opportunities to give the book a tragic ending, he decides instead to give us a glimpse of such ordinary happiness as human beings can achieve in their journey towards oblivion.

I suppose when reviewing a novel, one is nowadays supposed to end with a decision. So I give you Recommended.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Review: David Keen, Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important Than Winning Them

It is often the job of science - and, more humbly, academic research - to show that the way things seem is not always the way they are. The sun seems to rise in the morning and set in the evening whilst the earth remains fixed; in reality, the earth goes round the sun.

Those fighting wars generally claim to be fighting to win and, sometimes, they are. But sometimes they are fighting to lose, just like a football team which - though it doesn't trumpet the fact - has sold a game. And sometimes, perhaps most frequently of all, they are fighting to keep the war going. Or even just the appearance of war: they pretend to attack us and we pretend to fight back.

David Keen asks why so many wars last so long - decades in some cases - and are so often inconclusive. He answers that it is because there are frequently - indeed, almost always - war stakeholders who want it that way. On both sides or all sides. This what he calls the political economy of war.

Wars provide jobs, opportunities to loot and to take bribes, opportunities to exploit natural resources like diamonds, oil or opium, opportunities to seize women (wars are fought very largely by young men), opportunities to become powerful, opportunities to attract foreign aid. The last is a particular incentive to keep a war going: peaceful countries trying to make a go of things don't get aid.

That is only the start. Keen's book is a compendium of examples of what war is really about everywhere in the world: Colombia, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan. There are so many examples that unfortunately they weaken both the theorisation of war and the literary structure of the book.

In terms of theorisation, though Keen has a chapter on the US war economy (chapter 8) he seems reluctant to draw the conclusion that war and the continuation of war around the world is primarily driven by the USA hunting for new wars as if it was hunting for new markets. Indeed, all big wars are markets for US military products.There is no other contender for the main driving force of war. In 2010, the USA spent $698 billion on defence, some 43% of world defence spending. China comes in second at $119 billion (7.3%). Of every American tax dollar, 41.6 cents is spent on defence (page 172). And that's without direct arms exports, available to almost all comers.

How these extraordinary sums play out on the ground is nicely illustrated by one statistic which Keen provides elsewhere: in March 2010, the US Defence Department awarded a $2.16 billion contract with local truckers in Afghanistan to supply American troops. Basically, you can fly stuff in to one or two main bases like Bagram but you have to use road transport to shift it around.

This contract is equivalent to "around 10 per cent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product" (p 81).

That is staggering.This is not a contract any Afghan is going to risk by making too much peace. And it is a contract where lots of people will want a share of the booty. According to the US House of Representatives, truckers on the ground [paid around $2.50 per hour] believe

"that a large portion of their protection payments to local warlords for convoy security subsequently go to the Taliban or other anti-government elements, the forces which actually control much of Afghanistan and many of the key routes used for transportation of U.S. supplies" (pages 81 - 82)

Put differently, both local warlords (notionally pro-Government) and the Taliban (notionally anti-Government) have a big financial stake in the continuation of this trucking operation.

It gets worse. If the protection payments reduce the level of attacks on truck convoys to zero, someone in the US budget office will soon suggest that the trucking ought to be getting cheaper now that security is so much improved. Foreseeing this, a trucking company has an incentive to speak to a warlord asking him to speak to the Taliban and, with money changing hands, secure a few attacks on passing convoys. Not very good attacks, of course - shooting up the tires rather than the truckers.

It is only when trust breaks down that you start shooting up the truckers.

In a number of places, Keen does draw a tentative conclusion that if you want a nasty civil war in a poor country to end, you stay away. No foreign military intervention. No aid. Without these incentives to more war, war weariness will set in and some kind of settlement will be reached.

A few more pacifists in the world would also help.

Throughout the book, Keen does draw attention to the well-known fact that the victims of modern wars are primarily ordinary civilians who are abused by all sides: government troops who claim to be protecting them, rebels ditto, occupying (American, British) forces and their missiles ditto. Civilians often end up feeling that they have nowhere to turn, though sometimes they are lucky when one side - often rebel forces (like the Vietcong) - is better disciplined and more oriented towards their needs and aspirations than the others.

Keen has an interesting chapter titled "Shame and the Psychological Functions of Violence" in which he analyses the dynamics by which soldiers and rebels become abusers and rapists. There is now never a war in the world where armed forces - insurgent or counter-insurgent - do not rob, brutalise, torture, maim, degrade, humiliate civilians who happen to be in their way. Quite often, this is a preferred alternative to shooting straight at the enemy. After all, he may then shoot back.

In terms of theorisation, I missed an inference which is fairly obvious when one looks at civil wars in developing countries and which deserves to be loudly proclaimed. War flourishes where political control over military forces is weak. In the West, there is a very clearly articulated notion that military forces are subordinate to political control. In the old Soviet Union, the doctrine was taken even further: political commissars shadowed military officers at all levels.

This does not entirely preclude the military from developing its own agendas - most obviously, in the US and the UK there is revolving door which takes senior officers straight out of the armed forces and into the offices of arms manufacturers. Nor does it preclude "bad wars" where political agendas drive unwinnable or unjust conflicts, like those in Vietnam and Iraq. It is in this context also that demoralised soldiers from deprived backgrounds are prone to commit abuses, thereby reinforcing the unwinnability or the unjustness of the conflict with which they are engaged.

In countries where the state and the government is weak, the scope for military free-lancing is enormously increased. In countries like Turkey, Iran and (I think) Egypt, the army is a major entrepreneur, engaged in all kinds of profitable business activity. In countries like Sierra Leone or DR Congo, more simply, the army has wanted control of the diamonds.

This is an interesting book, depressing reading but important for understanding the world we live in. David Keen - Professor of Conflict Studies at the London School of Economics - does his scientific job, trying to show us how appearance and reality are different. I feel he could have done it perhaps more analytically and less by way of examples - albeit, thoroughly researched ones (there are fifty pages of Endnotes and Bibliography to this 2012 Yale University Press book)

Saturday 19 May 2012

Review: Jan Karski, Story of a Secret State

This is a book with a complicated history. Originally published in the USA in 1944 to considerable success, it did not appear in Polish until 1999 - but with additions provided by the author (who died in 2000). This 2012 paperback, published by Penguin, is based on the Polish version with footnotes taken from a 2010 French edition and a new bespoke Afterword by Andrew Roberts. The whole runs to over 450 pages.

Jan Karski is the man who in 1942, as the principal Courier of Poland's wartime underground government (the "secret state" of the book's title) carried microfilm evidence and his eye-witness accounts of the Holocaust in Poland to his own Government in Exile in London, to the British government (he met Anthony Eden) and to the American government (he met President Roosevelt). Partly because he could not produce photographic evidence - and partly because it was inconvenient to believe him - he was not wholly believed by the Allies though he was believed by his own government which in December 1942 published in London, The Mass Extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland.

Just two of the book's 33 chapters are devoted specifically to Nazi extermination policy. Karski was twice taken into the Warsaw Ghetto and writes about that. He was also - almost unbelievably - taken into Izbica Lubelska, a holding or transit annex for Belzec. Both of these chapters make for difficult reading.

But these chapters are part of a wider narrative and purpose, part of which is very clear and part of which is implicit and not acknowledged or discussed by Andrew Roberts.

Karski emphasises over and over again that in German-occupied Poland the Nazis found it impossible to create a Quisling government. They faced passive resistance on a very large scale and, beneath that, a secret state which sought to act like a regular state and a democratic one to boot. It conceived itself as having authority from the London Government in Exile (headed by Sikorski during the period Karski writes about). It had ministries organising education and such like; there were political parties - free to operate independently of each other, publishing newspapers and so on - and there was an underground Army (the "Home Army") which eventually launched the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. The Resistance had money, wide support and lots of talent.

The underground government issued orders which Poles in general were expect to obey and it condemned collaborators to infamy or death. It harassed the Nazi occupiers at every opportunity.

When Karski travelled to London as a Courier he carried messages not only from the underground government but from all the political parties in the underground government, including the Jewish Bund, each of whose perspectives he was expected to report impartially.

The clear message is this: the defeat of the Germans should mean that the underground government becomes the overground government, establishing order and preparing the ground for parliamentary elections.

The Russians had different ideas. Stalin intended to maintain the partition of Poland, keeping territories occupied in 1939, and he intended that the post war government of Poland should be under his control. In 1944, as Soviet troops moved into areas of Poland they did not claim territorially, they were followed by a Moscow-controlled Government which beginning its life in Lublin soon took full control. The London Government in Exile never returned and the "Secret State" emerged into the daylight only to go down in defeat: at the time of the Warsaw Uprising, Soviet troops were already close to Warsaw but did nothing to intervene and prevent the Poles going down to defeat. They were, after all, the wrong Poles.

I think that Karski foresees this scenario and insists so much on the virtues of the Polish Underground because he knows it will have to face a Soviet challenge to its authority. But in his 1944 Postscript to the book, he simply observes "Poland's underground state, to which I belonged, was under the authority of the Polish Government in London [ note the past tense]. I know that, besides this organization, there were other elements carrying on their activities under the direction or the influence of Moscow. Because of my sincere intention to describe only my personal experiences, their activities could not properly be included in this book" .

Karki's experiences still make for gripping and moving reading as he narrates the horrors of German occupation. But Poland's next tragedy was that the elements under the direction of Moscow were the winners. Karski remained in the USA and was not honoured in Poland until after the fall of Communism.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Review: Sean McMeekin, History's Greatest Heist: the Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks

Those who say Let History Be My Judge probably don't intend that to mean Let the Historians Be My Judge.

Historians know that their work inevitably and constantly involves the exercise of judgment but don't all think that this obliges them to act as Judges. Some think that you can write a book on What The Bolsheviks Did which leaves readers to form the conclusion and It Was All Wrong.

Others think this is false modesty: whether you like it or not, you are always leading your readers to a conclusion. Better - and more entertaining - to state the conclusion yourself.

The Bolsheviks - "a ruthless gang of Marxist ideologues"(page xxii) - were Baddies. They seized state and commercial property to which they had no lawful claim. They robbed individuals of their private possessions and the robbery was often with violence.

McMeekin's judgements in the opening pages are very loud, accompanied by many adjectives. But once he gets down to his historian's work, they do fade into the background and his book (published by Yale UP 2009) becomes much more interesting.

The Bolsheviks did not fund the Russian Revolution in the years 1917 - 21 from taxation. There was pitifully little economic activity to tax and what there was mostly took place in areas outside Bolshevik control.

Nor did they have anything to export. In 1919, for example, total exports amounted to 1,500 tons, mostly flax and hemp (page 122). Even in 1918 the total had stood at 60,000 tons.

The Bolsheviks funded the first few years of the Revolution primarily from the vast Imperial gold reserves which they acquired in two instalments. First, in 1918, from the State Bank when it finally caved in to Soviet demands. Second, in 1920, when the Czechoslovak Legion handed over the head of the White forces, Admiral Kolchak ,along with the Kazan part of the Imperial gold reserves which had been secured by the Whites.

Those gold reserves, in principle, allowed the Bolsheviks to import goods - mostly intended for the Red Army - in the context of the breakdown of almost all domestic production. However, there were two snags.

First, a naval blockade enforced primarily by the British until the end of 1919.

Second, the question of legal title. Until the Soviet regime secured some kind of de facto if not de jure recognition from other European powers, its title to the Imperial gold was in doubt or worse. The legal snags lasted until 1920 - longer in France and the USA.

Much of McMeekin's book is devoted to the study of the means by which the Soviets circumvented the obstacles. It's a story in which Sweden plays a major role, especially from the moment when its Royal Mint agreed to melt down gold ingots stamped with the Imperial Russian Eagle and create new ingots stamped with the Swedish arms.

It's also a story which involves a large number of bankers, bagmen, conmen, and adventurers who were happy to take the Bolshevik rouble provided it was in gold.

The Imperial gold reserves, though vast, would not last forever. The Bolsheviks supplemented them with expropriations of gold, silver, jewels, art and artefacts from the Church and from private individuals (many of whom had fled or would soon flee). These seizures - crude, inefficient and often bloody - yielded vast quantities of stuff which came to fill warehouses in and around Moscow under the control of an organisation known as GOKHRAN (State Treasury for the Storage of Valuables).

There was so much stuff, that much of it was treated like scrap. Silver book bindings were prised off for the value of the silver; Icons were stripped of their jewels. The Bolsheviks behaved like the Spanish seizing Inca valuables.

The most valuable stuff - the Romanov Crown Jewels, notably - was difficult to shift, despite the efforts of another group of dealers and crooks. However, had McMeekin continued his narrative beyond the early 1920s (he does so, but only sketchily)he could have shown how by the 1930s that even in France and the USA the dodgy provenance of the stuff had virtually ceased to be of concern to anyone.The passage of time is a very good laundry.

There is a popular but useful book by Toby Faber, Fabergé's Eggs (2008) which tells, among other things, how GOKHRANs accumulations of Imperial kitsch ended up for sale in American department stores (see especially chapter 19).

Lenin once said of the social democrats, Don't listen to what they say; watch what they are doing with their hands. McMeekin has turned around that advice in this valuable study of where, in the years immediately after 1917, the Bolsheviks' money came from and what they did with it.

As with many history books, the interest is often in the detail and McMeekin's book is full of such detail, backed up with an impressive array of references. I learnt a lot from reading it and McMeekin writes well. He just needs to go easier on the adjectives.

I spotted only one error: at page 177 he says that the Soviets channelled money "to the [British] Communist newspaper, the Daily Herald". I do not think that the Herald was ever a Communist newspaper. It welcomed both Russian Revolutions and it was opposed to British intervention against the Bolsheviks (enough to justify a subsidy) but it was never an official (big C) Communist paper.