The Russian revolution 100 years on. Review: E.H. Carr “The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin 1917-1929”

 

 

Introduction:

 

Carr devoted thirty years of his life writing the fourteen volume, two million words, and the definitive history of Twentieth Century Russia. This is his magnum opus distilled into two hundred pages and it is extraordinary. As the October centenary of the Russian Revolution looms large on the horizon, I have been reading different historians on the topic. Unquestionably, this is the authoritative account of the era. Carr is especially informative at explaining the economic history of the USSR, which I am going to discuss in detail here.

 

The Russian Revolution has become an emotive issue, dependant on your political allegiances. The facile, reductive left-right political split holds no interest for me as I do not hold any strong allegiances on either side. I am intrigued by reading about the Revolution as a social event in and of itself. The economic scrutiny that Carr brings to bear seems to me to offer the most objective way to analyse why, ultimately, the Russian system failed. It is too easy to disassociate communism from totalitarianism, thereby letting the communist economic policies off the hook. The fact is that the Party instigated a plethora of different socialist and communist economic policies which led to the near ruination of Russia and millions of her innocent people.

 

Economic history:

 

In 1919, lots of Russians frequently volunteered to work for free, on what became known as “communist Saturdays”, underscoring the early sense of collective optimism felt in the country. There was a general sense of goodwill as Russia tried to rebuild herself following the disaster of World War One and the political upheaval at the time.

 

As soon as the Bolsheviks nationalised the banks, the economy dipped. This should have acted as a warning not to rush into further Nationalisation but because the economists and planners were ideologically driven, it was not. There followed a “catastrophic decline of industry” as Nationalisation increased. The Bolsheviks attempted to centralise all of the food that was produced, meaning the farmers could not keep any of it. This resulted in Moscow losing 44% and Petrograd 57% of its total populations as people travelled from the cities to the countryside to get food directly from the farmers. The government failed in its most basic responsibility to allocate and distribute the food it had collected. It seems so obvious that people must be given autonomy over what they produce and be allowed to control their fate. The notion of any State controlling everything is ludicrous. There was also a complete lack of management in the factories and food did not get produced efficiently. The idealistic sense of there not being a need for any management as everyone in the factories would be equal was a recipe for disaster.

 

As the crisis deepened and the food shortages kicked in, Lenin recognised that a compromise had to be made. The government controlling everything was impractical and impossible. Production was at intolerable levels. Consequently, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was unveiled in 1921, which allowed peasants to keep enough of the food they produced and send rest to the government.  The policy reaped immediate demands and production began to stabilise. It was a massive success. This is the most damning indictment there can be of socialism in its most extreme form. It can be argued that a famine and a civil war stymied the economy.  Yet, these were both ongoing during the rollout of the NEC. So the question then becomes, why did this policy by itself work? The tireless left right debate is about the individual versus the collective. Too much of either will fail. It is merely a question of balance. The Russian episode clearly demonstrates that moving too far to the left does not work.

 

The NEC caused a backlash with the ideological Russian left at the time. The Party began trading with Germany in 1922, initially buying tanks from them. The Bolsheviks believed that all European, and world, countries, would eventually become socialist. Chief among the evil capitalist countries at the time was Germany. The thought that the pure communist Russians would trade with the filthy capitalists caused a consternation. Lenin had to work hard to bring everyone on board. It is easy to judge 100 years on, but the thought of refusing to trade with another country because of they are Capitalist is naive.

 

The NEC stabilised the economy, but that was it. Let us not forget, it was dead on its feet before that. Stabilisation was never going to suffice.   By 1923, it was renamed the “new exploitation of the proletariat” by workers, as union officials got paid a lot but workers toiled for next to nothing. Six years on from the revolution and the workers were worse off.

 

The Planned Economy: 1925 onwards:

 

I thought 1917-25 was ideologically driven. Whew! There followed the real rise of the USSR as we knew it. This was preceded by a battle between the “Geneticists”, who thought they could use available data to plan the economy and the believers in “Teleology”, who assumed that they could force the economy to its bend to their will.  Carr writes that “in practice, the teleologists tended to reject the rules of a market economy, and claimed to override them by positive action; and this meant they paid less attention to the conciliation of the peasant”. In essence, the poorest people suffered the most.

 

When planning a massive economy like the Russian one, the planners completely lost sight of the individual. As it was ideologues and not economists organising things, “no planning target (became) too high to attain”. Ludicrous targets of between 25% to 100% were set in different areas of the economy. Therefore, “planning (became) a political and not purely an economic activity”. This gets to the nub of why it was doomed to fail. The targets set were too political and idealistic. They ostracised any economists that were not of the same mindset that they were. A grave error.

 

The situation worsened when the Party began to control the means of production. This essentially “meant large investment in heavy industry which brought no immediate benefit”.  As a result, the workers had to build canals and roads and not harvesting food for people to eat. They could barely struggle to feed the population when they were solely focused on food production. The Party then faced the dilemma that “prices go up or wages come down”. In a Capitalist society, the equipment would have been bought and leased by specific companies designed to do these jobs.  Prices skyrocketed. Then they “tried to force down retail prices by decree”. This compelled people who made goods to trade them on the black market as they could get higher prices there. Sadly, we have not learned that most basic of economic lessons, and we can see the same thing happening in Venezuela today.  The poorest suffer the most. This was, and is, the tragic irony of communism. Despite the noblest of intentions, no government can impose its will upon people. Coercing equality, no matter how lofty the aim, will not work. Society must include the individual.

 

Back to 1920’s Russia. When the planners discovered that they had to get the workers to build systemic structures, from which there is no tangible return, it lead to “Rationalisation”. Essentially, the Party had to get more with less. The Russian peasant / middle class “Kulaks” as they were known, began to be squeezed for more. It baffles me when I hear modern leftists use the term “Kulak” in modern parlance. Carr himself says that the term “became one of abuse”.  The same problem that had gnawed at communism from the outset began to rear its head, namely that the “large collective unit was more likely to provide a surplus for the market than the individual peasant working primarily for the needs of himself and his family”. In other words, like it or loathe it, if you are a peasant and you know that every single bit of food that you produce will be forcibly removed to go towards the State, then what motivation do you have to produce excess? There is none. You will not produce more. If you know that your work will feed your family and you can sell the excess, then you are motivated.

 

The planners had set capital growth at 110%, whilst reducing costs by 40%. They increased wages and reduced prices. It does not take a PhD in economics to work out how that will pan out.  Interestingly, in 1929 the market collapsed across the Western economies and led to a great recession. Many at the time felt that Marx was right all along. This false sense of confidence in the communist system would lead to even more drastic consequences.

 

Collectivisation:

 

It was not just the Kulaks who felt the squeeze. The peasants also bitterly resented having to hand over the means of production. On a practical level, it meant that they had to give their farmhouses, animals and tools over to the state for the greater good. You still hear modern Marxists opine about seizing the “means of production”. This is what it meant in Russia. You take from the poorest with the aim of the state being better at dividing up food for people. The mind boggles how seemingly intelligent people could not see the problem with “Collectivisation” and “seizing the means of production”.  The fact is that the ordinary peasants, who the Party claimed to represent in their fanciful “dictatorship of the proletariat” were the very people who “most resented the demand to hand over their animals. Many chose to slaughter these rather than hand them over”.

 

Collectivisation lead to the deaths of between 1 to 5 million people.

 

Collectivisation lead to the deaths of between 1 to 5 million people.

 

This is the part that is critical to understand. It was not dictatorship or totalitarianism that had done this. It was the communist economic policy. Plain and simple.

 

In 1926, pre-collectivisation, the economy was 50% State owned and 50% Nationalised. After the first five year plan, there was virtually no private enterprise.

 

As the economy stumbled and people were working on building with canals and railways, the Party realised that they had to demand more from the workers as there was less of them focused purely on the harvesting food. Once again, the weakest suffered the most. At this point, there was the option to liberalise the economy or use force to bend it to their will.  Sadly, the Party chose to force extra from people. As Anna Applebaum pointed out in her hauntingly insightful “Gulag: A History”, peasants and kulaks who refused to work “were taken most seriously of all. They ran counter to the entire ethos of the camp. After 1938 strikers were severely punished”. If you did not buy into the “Collectivisation” ethos, then you were thrown in the Gulag and forced to. Looking at it one hundred years on, it seems the Nordic model is the way forward. Free Market Capitalism with a well-funded welfare State providing a safety net for people who cannot work. Equality cannot be forced on people.  As Carr put it, “the peasant – and not only the kulak – was the victim of naked aggression”.

 

Democracy:

 

Carr clearly states that the Bolsheviks “had no use for the Western principles of democracy and constitutional government”. This is why the Russian Revolution must be consigned to the dustbin of history and not lionised like people still do today. Trotsky, for example, wrote in “Terrorism and Communism” that democracy was a “puerile illusion” and a “worthless masquerade”. He believed that the Party would speak for the working class. The conceit was obvious. He must have missed the Rousseau history lesson. Power can only come from the people. No doubt, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had exquisite intentions. This did not give them the right to violently force their will for all Russians.

 

Analysing the election results before the Bolsheviks took power is fascinating. In the election on 12th November 1917, the total leftist parties won 267 out of 520 seats in the Duma. The Bolsheviks won 161 out of 520.  The people never wanted them. Knowing this, Lenin suspended all elections in January 1918.

 

At the first Communist International “Comintern”, Lenin “denounced bourgeois democracy and proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat”. Trotsky employed the exact same language. It is intriguing to me to see modern leftists mythologise Lenin and Trotsky. Their philosophy was and is not compatible with democracy. They sneered and laughed down their noses at it. Whilst I do not have any strong left or right leanings, I strongly believe that the only way that we can legitimately organise ourselves as a species is through the will of the majority of the people in free and fair elections. Any deviation from this has the potential to result in the type of violent,  despotic tyranny meted out to innocent Russians in the first half of the Twentieth Century.

 

Inevitably, people began to rebel, resulting in a long and bloody civil war. 1921 saw the infamous Kronstadt rebellion. It is instructive to read their demands. They requested free elections to the Soviet, freedom of speech, to elect a commission to review the fate of political prisoners, to equalise rations for workers etc.  All completely legitimate. On March 17th, 1921, they were brutally crushed & thousands of people were killed. It was Leon Trotsky who led the Red Army to quash the Kronstadt rebellion and famously exclaimed that the sailors were to be shot like partridges. People still cite Trotsky as a political influence in 2017. Ironically, when Trotsky was running for leadership of the Party in October 1923, he called the regime “unhealthy” and observed that it needed to be replaced with “Party democracy”. He thought it was important within the Party, but not the country. Go figure. When this was not forthcoming, the obvious transpired. In the 1925 party congress, Stalin took over and immediately wrested control of the opposition newspaper, before proposing the removal of Trotsky and Zinoviev from the committee. This was “apparently carried out without a vote”.  Imagine the amount of lives that could have been saved it the Party and country were democratic.

 

Conclusion

 

There is absolutely no doubt that the Russian Revolution was, as Carr points out “the source of more profound and more lasting repercussions throughout the world than any other historical event of modern times”. The lessons are stark.

Planning an economy for a country and not giving autonomy to individuals in a society did not work.

Democracy is an absolute must to prevent tyranny.

No violence must ever be used to control the citizens of any country.

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Ernest Hemingway: “Across the River and into the Trees”

Introduction:

 

Hemingway is one of the very finest to do it, maybe the damn finest, as the man himself would say. He gave a voice to the inner thoughts of his characters like none before or since. I felt like I was Colonel Richard Cantrell’s chauffeur Jackson himself after this novel. His famed “iceberg” style is in full effect here. The sparse sentences he employs hint at the depth of human thought and emotion bubbling under the surface. I often find that authors frequently over write and explain everything. Hemingway gets the balance right.

The dialogue between Colonel Cantrell and his lover Renata can occasionally feel overwrought, mawkish and unctuous. The over the top “I love you” type of back and forth can be irritable. Yet it perfectly highlights our nature, the bullshit small talk we all use a social lubricant. The language is scanter when it comes revealing Cantrell’s innermost thoughts. Consider his monologue about Renata: “You sleep better than anyone ever slept”. Hemingway nails that exact feeling any lover has had.

His writing is replete with heavy doses of wit and truth: “They say you should never speak ill of the dead but I think it is the best time to speak truly of them. I have never said anything of the dead that I would not say to his face”. Indeed. Or my favourite line in the novel “When you simplify you become unjust”. What a thought. Makes me think of every conversation I have ever heard between political ideologues. As evidenced by our insane pursuit of the “answer” to life via religion, communism, capitalism, politics, science etc. The whole left and right divide. Far too many of the seven billion of us currently residing here vaingloriously attempt to simplify and reduce our understanding of reality down to a single line of thinking. When we do, we become unjust. Hemingway’s writing is full of such latent ideas, just waiting to be teased out.

 

Love and War:

 

There is a striking moment when Cantrell tries to tip a waiter who serves him wine on a gondola trip with Renata and he learns that the man’s family was blown up during the war by the Allies bombs. He tries to apologise but it is empty and refused. It brought home to me the lack of humanity in war. It is not distant forces fighting behind enemy lines. It is one human killing another human’s family. Surely, any sane and intelligent person condemns this behaviour. Or is war natural? It is, indeed, a vile thought to have. Question is, is it true? Humans always find a way to quarrel with each other. War is two people fighting on a gigantic scale, with lethal weapons. Can we evolve past this or will there always be humans that want to fight?

War is referred to as a “sad science” by Hemingway. and there is an odd link between war and love throughout. Think of Renata. She seems to be attracted by Cantrell’s warmongering exploits. She constantly pushes him to tell her about the battles that he oversaw. “I hate it but love it” she says when he implores her not to keep pushing him on it.

“Do I have to hate the krauts because we kill them?” he wonders. “Do I have to hate them as soldiers and human beings? It seems too easy a solution to me”. He obfuscates the simplistic notion that what “we” do is justified and what “they” do is bad. Indeed, think of the war crimes committed on all sides during war. Again, think of the waiter’s family, who were innocent non-combatants. Are German people really bad because of the actions of their leaders? Of course not. This is the grey area that Hemingway explores. There are no answers but it is refreshing to hear somebody have a good rummage around here. It is a refreshing and honest take on war and leaves out the usual jingoistic nonsense.

Comparing himself to his chauffeur Jackson, a fellow American soldier, he describes him as “in no sense a soldier but only a man placed against his will in uniform”. Hemingway frequently distinguishes between professional and conscripted soldiers in his novels, making the point that war is forced upon civilians. Very few people actually want to be soldiers.

“In our army you obey like a dog…you always hope you get a good master” says the Colonel. This is an interesting thought about how the infantrymen were animals and the generals were humans. War is not just one side treating the other as sub human. In fact, each side can treat its own like animals.

 

Alcohol:

 

It is not a coincidence that he is alcoholic. Question is how much the war affected him. We know he was drinking during the battle of Paris so it seems logical that he had to drown out the brutality in a miasma of Valpolicella and gin.

“This will solve all your ills and indecision” says the Colonel as he passes a Martini to Renata. Boozing has the transformative effect of creating a “momentary destruction of sorrow” for the characters. The militaristic language is telling.

 

Conclusion:

 

Hemingway elevates the simple to the significant with wonderful aplomb. Renata brushed her hair and: “was combing it with difficulty and without respect, and, since it was very heavy hair and as alive as the hair of peasants, or the hair of the beauties of the great nobility, it was resistant to the comb”. You can read him just for the words. To think that critics in 1950 said that his prose was weak in “Across the river…”

The pathos of the Colonel is bare and striking. The loneliness and isolation pregnant throughout: “Only tourists and lovers take gondolas, he thought. Except to cross the canal in the places where there are no bridges. I ought to go to Harry’s, or some damn place. But I think I’ll go home”.

 

 

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “Creating Space: the education of a broadcaster” by Andy O‘Mahony

Introduction:

 

O’Mahony has written a meandering, jumbly peregrination through his eventful life. His journey started out in rural 1930’s Ireland and took him to the Sorbonne, Harvard and Washington DC. This is the true story of O’Mahony, and Ireland’s, intellectual awakening after discarding the heavy vestiges of Catholic Ireland. We did this by being open to new ideas outside our religious scope at the time. In some ways, “Creating Space” is a paean to books themselves. The narrative is not linear and often confusing. Although, that may be precisely the point. He is at his most incisive when dissecting his area of expertise: broadcasting.

 

Media:

 

There is a great story about O’Mahony’s initial interview with RTE. He was waiting patiently for his interview and noticed another man listening, with ferocious intensity, to the news headlines that were playing on the radio in the background. He was blown away by this young man’s dedication to focusing on every syllable that was uttered by the newsreader. It was none other than Gay Byrne.

When O’Mahony joined Radio Eireann, he “developed a routine of meeting every other morning for a cheese sandwich and a Bovril (with Terry Wogan) on Abbey Street”, rubbing shoulders with the Irish broadcasting elite from the outset of his career.

The book daintily walks a threadbare line with dewy eyed recollection on one side and a critical, thoughtful evaluation of the big questions on the other. It frequently descends into name dropping mawkishness.

O’Mahony was a news reader during the era when JFK, Martin Luther King were assassinated. Bloody Sunday too. He focuses less on the experience of relating the news and more on what he thought of it. Which would be wonderful, if he had anything to add to the matters.

When articulating his thoughts on the Irish media, he is thoughtful: “planning and spontaneity are the two key coordinates of great broadcasting”.

 

Ireland:

 

O’Mahony represents Ireland’s great laicisation, from the 1950’s onwards. We still have not managed to disentangle ourselves completely from our theocratic past and O’Mahony’s journey mirrors the Irish path to a secular society.

He cites Dick Walsh in the Irish times on mid Twentieth Century Ireland: it was a time when the Church, Fianna Fail and the GAA were the most important institutions in the country. The Irish media played a key part in dismantling two of these, our national sport being here to stay.

His view on Ireland’s future direction is interesting: “The way forward is to work out an identity for ourselves that involves an exploration of our Gaelic, Christian, Graeco-Roman and British past. To my mind, it was not simply enough to acknowledge whatever benefits the British had brought us, we eventually needed to move to a point where we could assess the British experience as a phenomenon in itself, regardless of how the British interacted with us. Therein would lie true freedom”. As well as divesting ourselves from the tight grip of the church, we also had to escape the clutches of the British imperialists. Two enormous cultural changes that we are only now starting to come to terms with. The problem with the book is that it is part history, part personal, part philosophy, and part politics. Fair enough, like life itself. Yet, it just read like a miasma of half ideas to me.

 

Books:

 

There are not enough books about books so I loved this theme. O’Mahony was not a rare book collector but dipped in and out of that world. He slowly built up his collection before buying – and specifically designing one – to fit his five thousand strong collection. He converted his staircase to a bookshelf!

I felt he was at his best pontificating about books that he had read and studied. He is honest about the classic books that he never got around to – “War and Peace” etc. The honesty is appreciated too, with there being a lot of snobbery and superciliousness in this sphere.

 

Religion:

 

It was the ideas in books that led him away from religion. Initially he had thought that studying would confirm his Catholic world view, but was happy to welcome the opposite effect.

Just think, this he studied at a time in Ireland when he had to get permission from the Catholic Church when he wanted to study in Trinity College Dublin. When he began studying philosophy at University College Dublin, it was run by the Catholic priests. It is amazing really. I took a BA in Philosophy in UCD in 2000 and cannot imagine this happening less than a generation before me. On this topic, O’Mahony is clear: “The control that the archbishop, Doctor McQuaid, sought to exercise over the department was regrettable”. O’Mahony must have caught the tail end of this absurd level of theocracy in UCD. Thankfully, we have moved past this particular episode in our history.

 

Conclusion:

 

What I appreciate most about O’Mahony’s life is his constant quest for learning, taking new courses, pushing himself. He seems to adhere to a quasi-meliorism type set of beliefs. The only way that I personally judge any set of ethics is to view what kind of world we would live in if we all lived that way. If we all took O’Mahony’s approach to lifelong learning, there is zero doubt that planet earth would benefit. His inquisitiveness is contagious and inspiring.

The other main take away from the book is the current state of conversation on the Irish airwaves. He nails the issue when he says that the “rise of current affairs to (a) hegemonic position” has stymied many other important aspects of broadcasting. He gets to the nub of it: “Another defining feature of today’s talk show is the absence of writers, artists and thinkers”. Exactly. Where are they and have we lost our love of ideas? It would seem a terrible shame if we had. Look at the amount of vacuous nonsense on television in 2017. A work colleague was telling me about “Love Island” recently. We must make room for talking about ideas and art. Especially when you think that we only now just finding our feet as an independent nation and are still defining the characteristics that define us. This is the country of James Joyce and Patrick Kavanagh. Art and ideas are deeply embedded in our DNA. Free of Religion, free of the English, let us discuss our ideas. How else will we make the next great leap forward?

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Review: John Updike “Endpoint and other poems”

Updike’s posthumously published collection “Endpoint and other poems” was the last he penned and, certainly, his impending mortality is the key motif here. It is impossible to even summarise the breadth of interesting themes throughout. His musings on life, death, time, geography, America, war, air travel, pop music, doo wop, friendship, books, art, history, love are essential reading. His words sear themselves into the brain like cooling magma creeping slowly downhill from the Tamu Massif.

 

Death:

 

He does not tackle his looming impermanence in a typically dolorous sense. More, in a matter of fact way: “I settle in, to that decade in which, I’m told, most people die”. He views the whole matter as naturally as “shedding skin as minutes drop from life”. Not that he is completely sanguine about the matter: “Age I must, but die I would rather not”. Just something to get through.

In “Lunar Eclipse”, he reminds me of Kinsella’s extraordinary “Mirror in February” as he reflects on the slow passing of time.

Inevitably, looking forward results in the opposite too as he recalls his youth: “How not to think of death? Its ghastly blank / lies underneath your dreams, that once gave rise / to horn-hard, conscienceless erections”.

He has a brilliant insight on the journey through the arc of life: “Perhaps / we meet our heaven at the start and not / the end of life”.

 

War:

 

It is not a terribly frequent topic, but I thought it significant. He has profound thoughts on the matter: “I think that love fuels war like gasoline, / and crying peace curdles the ear of doves”. Like death, war is a brutish necessity, a ghastly method that we have always resorted to when resolving our disputes as a species. We have got to hope, and work towards building, a society in which we evolve into settling our disputes in a peaceful manner. Yet, Updike was charting his journey through life in America.

This sense of it being an aberrant, yet historical human trait is teased out throughout. He recounts his younger days, listening to Blondie, as the “daily paper brought us headlined war”. Fast forward to 2006 and “Iraq continues like a curtainless bad play”. He visits Cambodia and observes how “life has returned to avenues Pol Pot / once emptied with insane decrees”. He does not get political, just deliberates on the world he saw around him.

 

Geography:

 

He is at his most lyrical when describing the world around him, linking space and time: “Beyond the bay- where I have watched, these twenty years, dim ships ply the horizon, feeding oil to Boston”. I adore this image of ships feeding a people as they slowly arrive. Traders trading, life.

He ponders a visit to Ireland in 2008 and observed that: “The Celtic tiger still has crooked teeth”. Speaking as an Irish person, I cannot emphasis how prescient this was.

“In the beginning, culture does beguile us, / but nature gets us in the end”. The root of his, our, inspiration: the world around us. The root of art.

 

Art:

 

His poem “Stolen” discusses the permanence of a piece of stolen art even after the artist is dead. An idea within an idea: that art will live on regardless. It is just a question of who sees it to awaken the collective culture on the other side.

He loved his music and there are some fascinating takes on pop culture in here. In “Frankie Laine”, he describes a scene in a diner “through the hormone laden haze / your slick voice, nasal yet operatic”. Art, location, memory.

In “TV”, he makes a wonderful comparison between the relentless news cycle spewing out from our television sets to the water flowing out of a tap. We need it, but it can drown us. A perfect metaphor for our times.

 

Conclusion:

 

Updike is never sententious, always observant and honest.

After two readings, my favourite is “Outliving One’s Father”, where he poignantly cogitates on the ultimate human vulnerability. He writes about being “At his side, his shorter only offshoot, / I both sheltered and cowered…Now where / can I shelter, how can I hide, / how match his stride / through the years he never endured”.

Updike’s life was, as he wrote, “A life poured into words- apparent waste / intended to preserve the thing consumed / for who, in that unthinkable future / when I am dead, will read?”. He need not have worried on that score.

Aside | Posted on by | Leave a comment

Holiday reading: “Salvation of a saint” by Keigo Higashino”

Usually I come across books to read through reviews in the newspapers, recommends from friends and family, reading other books, articles, studying, old books I never that I never got around to, presents and loans from my mother, browsing bookshops and the library. They’re all good. I am very fortunate to live opposite the Pembroke Library in Ballsbridge in Dublin, so the day before I headed off on a week’s summer holidays, I went in with some specifics in mind and came across this Japanese novel when rummaging around.

The blurb made it seem a perfect holiday novel. A Japanese crime thriller. I started reading it on a train from Gdansk to Wroclaw and ate up the pages as we sped along at high speed. Yoshitaka dies from his coffee being poisoned but the main suspect, his wife Ayane, cannot have done the deed as she was thousands of miles away…

There is no great mystery here, save maybe some meditating on the constant infertility of the protagonists and how they are obsessed with procreation, symbolising Japan as a whole. Why they do not take more immigrants in is beyond me. Anyway, “Salvation” is a whodunit. I finished it on the plane home from Wroclaw two days later.

The writing seems modest and minimal, yet I cannot definitely draw that conclusion, as I was reading a translation.

Supposedly, Higashino’s first novel, “Devotion of Suspect X”, is equally as good. So, a little trip to the library maybe in order there too. Just need to book another holiday first…

 

Image | Posted on by | Leave a comment

“The Classic book of American short stories” published by Oxford and with an introduction by Douglas Grant, 1990.

The fourteen short stories in Oxford’s 1990 collection highlight the diversity of life in the burgeoning United States. It is not a pretty picture. The stories contained within are loosely chronological from mid nineteenth to twentieth century:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne “My Kinsman: Major Molineux” 1851
  • Edgar Allan Poe “The Black Cat” 1845
  • Herman Melville “Benito Cereno” 1856
  • Mark Twain “Baker’s Bluejay Yarn” 1880
  • Ambrose Bierce “The Coup de Grace” 1892
  • Hamlin Garland “The return of a private” 1891
  • Edith Wharton “Roman Fever” 1936
  • Stephen Crane “The Open Boat” 1898
  • Jack London “The Heathen” 1911
  • Sherwood Anderson “I Want to Know Why” 1921
  • Katharine Anne Porter “A Day’s Work” 1944
  • William Faulkner “Dry September” 1931
  • Ernest Hemingway “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” 1938

Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman: Major Molineux” is a wonderful story to begin with. It chronicles the tale of the young man Robin as he arrives in Boston trying to find work. He witnesses the very devil himself as tries to find the man who promised him a job. Upon meeting his tarred and feathered Kinsman, he wants to get the first boat back out, before being persuaded to stay, thereby perfectly encapsulating the difficulties of the generations of settlers that came to America in their droves, in search of work.

One theme that struck me throughout was water. Living at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, it is difficult to appreciate the amount of time that people spent on boats getting to and from their destinations. Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno” illustrates the inherent dangers of the journey, detailing a mutiny aboard a Spanish slave ship. The brutality meted out to the slaves on board for the mutiny was astonishing – the main conspirator Babo’s head was placed on a stick and his body burnt alive. The narrative in “Beneto Cereno” is  distorting and choppy.

Stephen Crane’s beautifully written “The Open Boat” expresses similar concerns about travelling on the treacherous seas, telling us of an escape from a sinking ship. Four men travel on a dinghy and see a lighthouse tantalisingly close in the distance. Eventually they try to swim for shore and it is the strongest of the four men, the oiler Billie, who winds up dead when they arrive, his limp, lifeless body immune against the force of the lilting waves on the beach.

In Ireland, we know all too well of the dangers of travelling by coffin ship to build a new life in America. Yet, a lot of these stories of travel were to bring slaves to America. This horrible practice rears its horrid head in many of the tales within, but none more shockingly than in Faulkner’s “Dry September” where a lynch mob violently chase down an African American man suspected of raping a white woman. It is a thoroughly difficult read. The use of the word “nigger” is rife throughout many of these stories, rendering them problematic for the modern reader. Given the derogatory slur was definitely offensive when at least some of these stories were published, these artefacts leave an indelible memory on the brain of a time when America was not at all tolerant.

It is the same with the stories detailing slavery throughout. Jack London’s “The Heathen” is also emblematic of the epoch, another story that I could not read in 2017 without being grossly offended. Charley thinks his “Heathen…gross materialist…friend” Otoo is there to serve him. He saw African Americans as existing solely to tend to his every whim. It is a vile story, with Otoo dying trying to save his Master. The story made me question the very foundation upon which the United States was built.

Edgar Allan Poe offers some light relief from the harshness of slavery and racism with a story about a thoroughly enjoyable story of a husband murdering his wife.

I did try desperately to not let Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” end up as my favourite story here, but failed, much like Macomber himself. Maybe it is my own bias added to the fact that by the 1930’s, the English used is easier to read, but “The short…” is deliciously opaque, forcing the reader to confront some unsettling themes.

The classic American short stories here reveal the real underbelly of life at the time. With the United States being the overarching hegemonic power in the time during which I write this, it is too facile to fall for their land of the free guff that they write about their past. It was nothing of the sort, as the tales here can attest to.

 

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning from our past: how the tale of “CuChulainn” can show us some ways forward…

Introduction:

 

I am fascinated by what values my Irish ancestors saw as worthy of mythologizing. After examining these qualities, I believe our past may offer an insight into how we might behave in the future. Have we lost touch with some of our core values and can we bring them to life again?

 

Women              

 

Ireland was a land where women ruled just as effectively as men. Think of Medb, the Queen of Connacht, in the story of CuChulainn. There was no doubting her brilliance and ruthlessness as a leader based solely on her gender. Clearly it was a monarchical system so, logically, it could be argued that she took power by default. The question still arises: in the superior, modern democratic system that we currently have, why is it that we have not had a female leader in over a hundred years since the beginning of the State? I am not critiquing democracy, it is the only game in town. Yet, it is a telling insight into the inherent misogyny in our political system that this has not happened yet.

Women were warriors in Ireland at the time. CuChulainn went to Scatach, the legendary Scottish warrior Queen to receive his training to be a warrior King. She was the very best at her trade and honed his fighting skills, teaching him to use a spear that enabled him “to rip (a person’s) innards to shreds”. I love the fact that she was the best warrior available in the Emerald Isles to train the young CuChulainn. Why, then, were Irish women not allowed to serve in the Irish military until 1979? 

CuChulainn marries Emer, who is “wise, modest and chaste”. This is the archetypal Irish woman at the time. Not that women were expected to be as pure as this. Medb  was evidence of this as she “took many male lovers”.

This is not glorify the role of women in Irish mythology. Chonchobar sent nine men to “find a wife for CuChulainn”. During this process, which women were not included in, they discuss “which of the women of Ireland CuChulainn might take”. That women were seen as objects for men to “take” is shocking and shameful. There is no going back to that dark era. Doubtless, we have evolved. Yet, the tale of CuChulainn can show us that we need to shed our deep rooted sexism that is pervasive in Ireland. Women should lead our country as much as men do. Is anyone seriously suggesting that there are no women that could lead Ireland more effectively than our last two Taoiseach, Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen?

 

Ethics:

 

CuChulainn was pre-ordained to “right all wrongs”. It is interesting to interpret this as the great Irish hero as trying to choose the correct moral course of action and not just superficially slaying other clans of fellow warriors. Maybe this higher level of ethics is what set him apart from all the other warriors.  It would be imprudent to draw too many conclusions about his morality as he was extremely violent, staking his claim as a warrior by slaying Chonchobar’s slobbering, snarling jowly mutt. Still, as a trait for Irish people to aspire to: doing the right thing seems like a worthwhile goal. In fact, when you think about, is there anything that each Irish person should be aspiring to over this? If we all chose, to the best of our ability, to “right all wrongs”, I think we can definitively say that we would have a better country. Especially now that we have, largely, managed to resolve our disputes through peaceful means and not with the spear.

CuChulainn’s education was instructive. Three talented experts in their fields were deliberately chosen to mould his character. The disciplines chosen were revealing. Poetry, fighting and caring for the weak. With the obvious exception of the redundant field of learning to fight, it would be beneficial if we could revisit our roots here and teach our young to care for other people. A cursory look at the despicable levels of homeless on the streets tells us that we have gone wrong somewhere. Once religious schools are finally phased out from Irish society and we have belatedly discarded all vestiges of theocracy in our primary and secondary schools, it is time that we begin to teach children ethics in school. Not just a perfunctory whizz through Buddhism etc but as a distinction in itself. Again, what could possibly have more long term benefits for our society than teaching young people help the weak and care for other people? We are more focused on personal finances than personal morality in modern Irish society. Paying our way and saving are of course part and parcel of doing the right thing, so we can do both.

 

Gaelic Sports:

 

150 “warriors” were playing Hurling in Emain Macha when Setanta first arrived. Indeed, he played hurling himself as a child, oftentimes by himself, helping to build his great strength. With the Anglicisation of Ireland from when the first British plantations arrived in the 16th Century, our national sports of Hurling and Gaelic Football have been constantly eroded away with other alternative’s. I am indicative of this too, I follow U.K. football. Would the great dilution have happened if we were not colonised for generations?  Should we move towards promoting our own sports or continue to diversify as we are at the moment? Every Irish citizen has, and should have, the freedom to choose the sport they want to play. Yet, there should be a duty on us collectively to promote Gaelic Games and keep the tradition alive.

 

Society:

 

Ireland was a land of warriors, poets, of wise sages, storytellers and of magicians. We loved nature. Artists and sages were prominent in local communities.

We liked a drink, even back then. Think of the wine that Deirdre drunk that sent her into a stupor and ended up with her beginning her epic journey.

 

Conclusion:

 

The tale of CuChulainn can point us towards some parts of our past that we have lost touch with. Traits that we should not have discarded. Certainly, we should keep alive our great tradition of playing and promoting Gaelic Games. Women should lead in Ireland as much as men do. Hopefully, the election of Varadkar, a gay son of an immigrant and the youngest Taoiseach in our history, can open up the path for a woman to lead the nation. It speaks volumes that it was possible for him and not a woman though. However, the most important lesson for all of us, woman and man, is the need to focus on “right(ing) all wrongs” and helping the “weak” in Ireland. If we all did that…

Aside | Posted on by | Tagged , | Leave a comment