Wednesday, 29 March 2017


Anthony Burgess called EMPIRE OF THE SUN "an incredible literary achievement," and he's not wrong. It's a remarkable work. I am perhaps the more struck by it because I first read a much earlier and less sucessful book of Ballard's - THE DROWNED WORLD - which, though a sci-fi set in London, has many of same themes: apocalyptic collapse; loneliness; final decisions. It's fascinating to see a writer take the same set of pre-occupations and move them from middling to masterpiece.

The book is based on Ballard's own experience of spending his early adolescence in a Japanese prison camp during the second world war. The Ballard proxy, a child named Jim, lives a privileged life in Shanghai until he is about ten, when the war comes and he is interned. Let's caveat though that privileged is perhaps a relative term, as pre-war Shangai sounds fairly intense. The Chinese are taking it to the next level with frequent "public stranglings" and some delicious street snacks
He turned away, tripping over the charcoal brazier in which a pavement vendor was frying pieces of battered snake. Drops of fat splashed into the wooden bucket, where a single snake swam, thrashing itself as it leapt at the hissing oil.

Yum. After a little while interned in the camp with 3000 others, the fried snake starts to sound pretty good. The prisoners get very little to eat, and go from picking out the weevils to cherishing them for their protein. It's interesting to see particularly how pragmatically the child handles the war. The adults are bogged down in morals and sentiment, but Jim isn't burdened with any of that. Here he is thinking about a doctor he meets who has made a passing comment on dentistry:
He was suspicious of the physician, of his long legs and his English manner and his interest in teeth. Perhaps he and Basie would team up as corpse-robbers? Jim thought about the goat which Dr Ransome wanted to buy from the Japanese. Everything he had read about goats confirmed that they wree difficult and wayward creatures, and this suggested that there was something impractical about Dr Ransome. Few Europeans had gold teeth, and the only dead people the doctor was likely to see for a long time would be Europeans.

The peace proves more dangerous than the war. Once the Japanese leave them, they have no more food, and no one to protect them from the various other starving groups: the communists, the nationalists, the civilians. Then the Americans start dropping canisters of food from their planes. Jim manages to find one, which is full of Spam.
Smiling to himself, Jim thought of his mother - he could no longer remember her face but he could all too well imagine her response to the Spam.

The book is fantastically interesting historically, emotionally compelling, and very beautifully written. Much of the book is, bizarrely, given its subject matter, very lovely. Particularly, there is a focus on the beauty of aviation. Jim develops an elaborate fantasy life around the airplanes he sees in the sky, mixed up with the dark time he spends as slave labour on a kamikaze plan runway.
The whiteness of the runway excited Jim, its sun bleached surface mixed with the calcinated bones of the dead Chinese, and even perhaps with his own bones in a death that might have been.
It's a remarkable translation of horror into poetry.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman

As the title suggests, LIFE AND FATE is a novel with a wide scope. It's a gigantic account of Stalinist Russia, mostly during the second World War, written by someone who was there: who survived the siege of Stalingrad; who lost his mother to the Holocaust; who took items from Hitler's desk immediately after his death; and who of course - in the best tradition of all truly important Russian novelists of the twentieth century - saw his own novel kept from publication till all relevant people, including himself, were dead.

To give you some measure of how vast it is, and how difficult it is to write any kind of pathetic little blog post on it, let me tell you the list of characters alone is eight pages long. And it's desperately needed, as you move wildly around from Stalingrad, to kolkhozes, to death camps (on both the Fascist and Soviet sides), to Moscow laboratories, to minor Ukranian towns, to the Lubyanka. This last is a major prison in Moscow, in which I spent so much time in Solzhenitsyn's THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO that it was like meeting an old friend.

I read some years ago the autobiography of Lenin's wife (hilariously pictured below), and was struck then by what seemed an almost insane level of idealism. There was lots of sitting around in cellars with your three friends from university and talking about how you were going to bring down Tsarist Russia. Then incredibly they actually did bring down Tsarist Russia, not without some serious weeping in the streets of Zurich while singing the Internationale.
And you see in this book the end point of this kind of wild belief in a better future. There is a long dark shadow of "1937" across this book, which is a kind of code for talking about Stalin's purges. I'd heard of these before, but in this book I really learnt of their scale. Almost the entire leadership of every area was executed (or "sentenced to ten years without right of correspondence," i.e., executed). This meant huge number of highly capable people were lost, but as the system insisted on confessions, and denunciations, and 'evidence,' it also left behind an even larger number of people carrying an enormous - and in some cases - unbearable burden of guilt, for providing the requisite denunciations and evidences. And yet somehow many people still convinced themselves that the state was still fundamentally right, and revolutionary justice was outside the realms of ordinary justice. People informed on each other left and right, and felt alright about themselves while doing it. Overall, it makes some African dictatorships I know of look pretty good.

In fact, this book made my life overall look pretty great. Try this, on the siege:
The German air raids stopped at dusk. A man arriving in Stalingrad at night, deafened by the guns, might well imagine that some cruel fate had brought him there just as a major offensive was being launched. For the veterans, however, this was the time to shave, to wash clothes and write letters; for the turners, mechanics, solderers and watchmakers this was was the time to repair clocks, cigarette-lighters, cigarette-holders, and the oil-lamps made from old shellcases with strips of greatcoats as wicks.
Or this, on life in the Russian military:
All his life as a soldier he had been afraid of having to account for lost ammunition and ordnance, lost fuel, lost time; afraid o fhaving to explain why he had abandoned a summit or crossroads without permission. Not once had he known a superior officer show real anger because an operation had been wasteful in terms of human lives. He had even known officers send their men under fire simply to avoid the anger of their superiors, to be able to throw up their hands and say: 'What could I do? I lost half my men, but I was unable to reach the objective'

While dark, the world of the book is also hilarious and very weird. This is because I think it is pretty much written direct from life. Grossman himself was asked to denounce people, and did so. So he knows what he means when he speaks of guilt. Try these conversations from Stalingrad:
"He's a fine fellow. A Bolshevik. A true Stalinist. A man with experience of leadership. And stamina. I remember him from 1937. Yezhov sent him to clean up the military district. Well, I wasn't exactly running a kindergarten myself at that time, but he really did do a thorough job. He was an axe - he had whole lists of men liquidated."
Apparently that's how we speak about the security organs. And here we are on the correct Stalinist view of women:
"She's got legs like a stork, no arse worth speaking of, and great cow-like eyes. Call that a woman?"
"You just like big tits," Chentsov retorted. "That's an outmoded, pre-revolutionary point of view."

I could go on. I think I've given you a flavour of maybe ten percent.


I started reading this book in the glorious pre-pandemic days of one week ago when COVID was some Chinese problem.   It begins as a medi...