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Saturday 24 October 2015

Review: Timothy Snyder, Black Earth

This is really three books in one.

The first part aims to shift the way we see the Holocaust. When something becomes familiar and taken-for-granted like the Holocaust, then it is always a good thing when someone tries to make us see it afresh. This Timothy Snyder does. He wants to produce two shifts (at least).

First, away from Auschwitz – a late and relatively minor Holocaust scene – and towards the Bloodlands of eastern Europe where mass murders, mainly by shooting, claimed the lives of over a million Jews in 1941 – 42. Waitman Wade Beorn's Marching into Darkness is the companion book for this part of the narrative. Unhelpfully, the book jacket design misses what Snyder is arguing and gives us the familiar railway tracks. Most Jews did not travel by train to die; they were rounded up where they lived and shot in local fields and forests by ordinary soldiers and locals as often as by specially trained killers.

Second, away from an emphasis on (Nazi or traditional) anti-semitism, as sufficient explanation on its own, and towards an understanding of the broader contexts in which people turn on their neighbours and kill them. In this broader context, Snyder emphasises eastern Europe as a world of shortages (land, food, clothes …) and a world of insecurity. The insecurity was dramatically increased by the wilful destruction of state structures by both Germany and the Soviet Union – in the worst cases, we find both of them attacking in rapid succession. When you destroy states – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – remove their leaders, their leading classes, their political parties, their armies, and so on, you turn citizens into stateless individuals, denied a Leviathan to protect them. Fear alone is enough to turn them against each other; anti-semitism channels the direction of pre-emptive violence in which those who have no prior or no profound ideological commitment willingly join.  

When the world becomes seriously insecure, the idea of killing your neighbour takes hold almost as if it is human nature. At the end of his book, Snyder briefly ( page 336) references the US-UK invasion of Iraq as an exercise in state destruction which functioned very much like the Nazi and Soviet invasions of 1941 – 42 in turning people into killers of their neighbours. Snyder singles out one phrase from a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and Stalin's Gulag to illuminate what he is trying to get at: "a man can be human only under human conditions" (page 341)

The second part of Snyder’s book takes us over familiar ground – some of it familiar because of his earlier book Bloodlands -  and takes us through thumbnails of how the Holocaust proceeded (or was halted) in different countries and how individuals responded to their generally complex and intolerable situations. This is all readable (and occasionally perhaps sentimental) but does not add to or shift the way we see things, except insofar as it seeks to confirm the role of state destruction in unleashing the Holocaust.

The third part is a short essay which seeks to draw Lessons from the Holocaust which will allow us to understand the way our world is now and what threatens it. The main theme here is the potential role of food and water shortages – brought about by climate change -  in turning people against their neighbours, seeking to expropriate and secure scare resources for themselves. I would have turned this short essay into something a bit longer; as it stands it feels a bit schematic, despite brief references to interesting examples (like the Rwanda genocide of the 1990s).

If you are pressed for time, read the first part of this book. If like me you think that we can never stop learning from our own recent history, read it all.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Review: Michel Houellebecq, Soumission

I think Michel Houellebecq is a very good writer - sometimes superb - but I don't think this is a good novel. It doesn't really work.

He imagines France a few years on from now (2022) electing a (moderate) Islamic President one of whose (less moderate) priorities is to islamicise - with the help of Saudi Arabian funding - university education. The events of the novel unfold through the eyes of a jaundiced professor who is cast, first, as an Outsider à la Camus: there is an obvious nod to the opening page of L'Etranger at page 174. But he is cast, second, as a faux naïf  who sits open mouthed (always nibbling at the canapés or the mezze) as others, more clued in politically, give him lessons in what is happening to France. These lessons take the form of set piece speeches, delivered by a secret policeman and a university rector to their audience of one. It is one of the drawbacks of a roman à thèse that you are forced into such desperate literary devices.

I should add that the narrator is also cast, third, as an academic expert on J K Huysmans, sufficiently distinguished to get the invitation to edit a Pléiade edition of his works. What Houellebecq writes about Huysmans is interesting and clearly knowledgeable; some university should probably give Houellebecq a doctorate for his thesis and overlook the novel.

Houellebecq can be an amusing writer when he wants to be but I am not sure - maybe my French isn't good enough - if he intends that we should be in fits of laughter as he brings his novel to a close. His narrator likes food and sex, preferably free but he will pay for both if necessary. He's a bit down on his luck when he is compulsorily retired from the new islamicised Sorbonne. But he is tempted back. He sees what is happening to those of his colleagues who have converted to Islam. They not only have the salaries, but new wives. The rector of the University has been given a 15 year old, very sexy, but also has an older wife who can cook, very well.

And so the narrator, after dutifully reading the little introduction to Islam provided,  discreetly enquires - If I accept the invitation to return, for how many wives would I qualify? Well, there is no obligation to take all of them, but we could probably offer you three. That settles it and, to the delight of his colleagues, our Vicar of Bray returns to his university post.