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Tuesday 29 September 2015

Review: Joseph Kanon, Leaving Berlin

The old Aristotelian device of “unity of time, place and action” works for the novel as well as for the theatre. If you want to create dramatic tension, it’s probably the device of choice. But it has a downside. You can end up creating implausible coincidences – on the stage, it means that the hero or villain enters stage left at just the right moment – just fancy that! – and in the novel it means pretty much the same thing. Joseph Kanon’s novel has a bit of this dramatic clumsiness, even though (because it’s a spy story) you may be unclear whether it’s a hero or a villain who has just walked onto the page.

Like his novel, The Good German, which I reviewed here on 19 January 2015, Leaving Berlin is set in early post-war Germany – 1949, in fact. This setting is now a sub-genre with its own tropes. One of them is in danger of being over-used: the mass rapes perpetrated by Russian soldiers as they entered Germany from the east in 1944 – 45. These rapes were known about, condoned and even encouraged right up to the top – Stalin knew. They are now documented in history books to make up for omissions in histories written at a time when you didn’t write about such things. Novelists now use the stories and are in danger of over-using them as if dealing with a peculiarly Russian disorder.

But it wasn’t only Russian soldiers who raped. So did Allied soldiers, not on the Russian industrial scale but in a few cases amounting to atrocities, notably involving troops from the French colonies: see the Wikipedia page “Rape during the occupation of Germany” for an introduction. These Allied rapes are not used as a literary trope: the French were on our side and their troops were African.

The novel has what seems a sentimental moment straight out of Casablanca (pages 315 – 318) but Kanon then gives it an unexpected twist – after all, this is a spy novel and as such it works quite well.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Review: Clive Driscoll, In Pursuit of the Truth

I usually have a fairly straightforward response to a book; to this one, I don’t

London’s Metropolitan Police has a reputation for idleness, incompetence and corruption. And that’s just the official view from numerous enquiries and investigations into its conduct. I would add servility to the list. The Met. has never stood up to its political masters who, it seems, will tolerate the Met’s shortcomings so long as it jumps when told to Jump! Only recently, the Leader of the House of Lords Baroness d’Souza reported her deputy, Lord Sewal, to the Met. for possession of class A drugs: the evidence provided by newspapers photographs of him snorting what he obviously believed to be cocaine. The Met. were on the case very quickly and obliged the Baroness by breaking down the door to Lord Sewal’s flat, an event duly publicised in those same newspapers. Now had I phoned the Met. and reported a neighbour who I suspected of snorting coke, I think it would have been seen as a case of wasting police time. London, after all, is the cocaine capital of Europe (that’s official too). Busting Lord Sewal was a complete waste of police time –  it may have  ticked the box, We acted on the Information, but it was done to oblige. It's forelock tugging.

The Met. is a traditionally working class organisation and Clive Driscoll presents himself as just an ordinary London boy from a difficult background who, despite dyslexia, has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps into a 35 year career with the Met. The style of the book is aggressively uneducated. I don’t know if this is Clive Driscoll alone or as he has been crafted by a ghost writer. The effect is sometimes comic and sometimes toe-curling. I think it is a main reason why I sometimes felt, This is an Unreliable Narrator. (But the low point comes when Mr Driscoll, who aims quite a few appropriate shafts at Roman Catholic church officials - spiced with reports of coded hand signals they use between themselves - then tells you that he himself is a  … Freemason. That had me in stitches.)

You cannot be a Comic Cuts Dixon of Dock Green Copper and at the same time successfully take on some very difficult investigations and secure convictions. That is where the style of the narration clashes all the time with the stories it narrates.

DCI Driscoll’s lasting claim to fame and gratitude arises from the fact that he took on the “Cold Case” Stephen Lawrence murder (which dated back to 1993), secured the confidence of the murdered boy’s parents – who provide Prefaces to this book - and others who had been bitterly disillusioned by the mishandling of the case, and eventually secured two convictions in 2012.

Things went wrong on the Lawrence case very early on: one of the suspects was the son of a well-known criminal who just happened to have a working relationship with the policeman put in charge of the murder investigation and who saw to it that the investigation went nowhere, despite information and evidence all over the place. Exceptionally bad luck? No, not completely untypical of the Met. 

All this and a lot more is on the record. So too is the fact that having secured the convictions, the Met. responded to Driscoll’s success not with congratulations but by pushing him into compulsory retirement – hence this book which though it never presents itself as such is also his revenge.

All these negative things said, there are stories told here which are entirely credible, greatly to Mr Driscoll’s credit, and often enough are stark reminders of what life in an “Inner City” is like for many of its inhabitants. Some of the things narrated here deserve further scrutiny, since the UK’s laws of libel have often enough prevented the naming of names. Mr Driscoll’s book is at its most frustrating when he points his finger upwards to the “high ups” in the Met.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Review: Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

This is a very well written and very interesting book. It argues that the elderly frail and the dying can enjoy a better quality of life than they often do - and that will often enough involve less medicine than more. It will certainly involve asking the frail and the dying what their own priorities are.

Gawande contrasts nursing homes, organised like penitentiaries, unfavourably with assisted living where even the very frail can keep something like their own front door and the freedom to schedule their own time and occupy it in their own way. Likewise, he is more impressed with hospice care (including hospice care delivered at home) than with medical interventions which go on for too long and often reduce rather than improve quality of life.

The argument is built up through some very finely written informal case studies, including one of his own father. As a result, the book is very easy to read - though, of course, it deals with end of life issues which are often enough traumatic for those involved - the person who is on the way out and the family who will remain. He also looks in detail at the ideas of practical providers who have sought alternatives to over-medicalised, over-hospitalised management and intervention.

I felt that the argument Gawande advances is really more general than he indicates. Even before we get into frailty and end of life, modern medicine often offers us too much and expects us to take it. 

It is now routine, for example, to offer rather unpleasant and often risky procedures as the means by which certain things (usually cancers) can be ruled out. But a good specialist using his or her hands and collateral information could in at least some cases make a reasonably reliable assessment. I would like the option of declining the invasive procedure until I had had a judgment from a pair of hands that concluded there was a real cause for concern.

Likewise, with medication. It is not only the elderly frail who are over-medicated to the point where side-effects are worse than the problem being medicated for. Play-safe prescribing or prescribing-on-request puts many millions of people onto pills they don't really need. 

There are signs that the problem is being recognised and  that things are changing. I hope so.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Review: Hanif Kureishi, The Last Word

Books are read in context. I was working for a couple of days in Wiesbaden and took with me an unfinished Caitlin Moran How To Build A Girl. Well, that’s a book where you speed along, tripping over from one gag to the next, and I finished it faster than I had imagined. I heartily recommend it.

I needed something else to read. The nearest German bookshop could only offer me a dozen novels in English (I’ve given up trying to read in German) from which I picked this one.

Kureishi has a very long back list from which I recognised only My Beautiful Launderette which I remember as a fine film.

This is not a book where you trip along, despite the cover puffs which assure you that it is “Brilliantly funny” and “Hugely entertaining”. Maybe it depends where you are coming from. The novel tells the story of a London-based man commissioned by his London publisher to write the biography of an elderly Indian –born but rural England-resident writer, who in turn writes a novel about the upstart young man sent to write his biography. I guess it’s the kind of plot which goes down well in London literary circles where, Private Eye informs me, everyone is up everyone else’s bum.

As a novel, I found it quite flimsy: unambitious plot and characters who aren’t quite, well, characters despite (perhaps because of) the big brushstrokes with which they are painted. I found white working-class Julia the most interesting of his three leading female characters.

But as a novel of ideas – an essay in other words – it’s very interesting. And when it uses its near-to-death main character Mamoon to say things of which London literary society might disapprove if you said them in your own voice, it’s interesting and fun. 

Thus Mamoon:

"[On George Orwell] All that ABC writing, the plain style,the bare, empty mind with a strong undertow of sadism, the sentimental socialism and Big Brother and the pigs, and nothing about love - intolerable. No adult apart from a teacher would bother with one of his novels." (page 92)

“One falls in love, and then learns, for the duration [of a marriage] that one is at the mercy of someone else’s childhood” ( 115)

“The truth is, everything we really desire is either forbidden, immoral or unhealthy, and, if you’re lucky, all three at once” ( 275)

“[Of his personal archive] It’s all going to the university this week. I should have stuffed it in the grate. Ted Hughes, whom I knew and loved, had the right idea with Sylvia’s diaries – push them in the oven after the woman’s head. Otherwise those unreadable academics never stop trying to make their careers and a good income out of it, while making the man look like an ogre. They see it as they wish, without imagination. And it is ordinary male sexuality that they hate” (300)

But reading this last rant, I did wonder if Kureishi did not quite have the courage of his character’s convictions and has left it to the reader to silently insert "politically correct" or “female” before “academics”. Perhaps that's unfair; maybe an editor took something out as an outrage too far. Elsewhere, Kureishi does allow Mamoon his racism.

Refreshingly, and in defiance of the new norm,  Kureishi does not Acknowledge the help of any Facebook Friends.