Archive for July, 2007

Hiroshima Redux

Monday, July 30th, 2007

The Ash Garden, Dennis Bock, 2001

Here Bock creates three fictional characters to explore the impact of the nuclear age. The first is a non Jewish German nuclear physicist who voluntarily leaves Germany in 1938 because he thinks the direction of world renowned Heisenberg relying on Heavy water is wrong and wants to find an environment that will support his own research. He joins Fermi in Chicago and is then recruited for the Manhattan project in Los Alamos New Mexico. After the bombing of Japan, he is sent with a group of scientists to study the effects of the bomb on Hiroshima. In Japan he acquires a home movie camera and secretly shoots a lot of film. All pictures and film of Hiroshima are heavily censored by the American occupation. The scientist never shows his films to anyone.

Aside: Hitler believed that the war would be over before a nuclear bomb could be developed and gave few resources to the effort. Scientist Otto Hahn and Austrian Jewish scientist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission when they continued the earlier work of Hungarian Enrico Fermi. Hahn helped Meitner escape to Sweden but the Nazis killed other Jewish scientists.

The second character is the daughter of a Linz Austrian Jewish instrument maker who sends his daughter out of Austria in 1938 to protect her. She ends up in a refuge camp near Quebec City in Canada where she meets the Germany scientist and they are married.

Hiroshima Ruins
Ruins of Downtown Hiroshima

The third character is a Japanese girl who was six years old living in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. Her parents and brother were killed and she was badly disfigured. She was raised by her aging but wise grandfather, a doctor, and came to the States when she was fifteen to undergo reconstructive surgery in a program sponsored by American charities. The surgery is successful but when her grandfather dies and she stays in the States becoming a documentary filmmaker.

After the war, the European characters assume all their relatives have died and they never return to Europe. All three characters are now orphans.

The German scientist retires with his Austrian wife to a small resort town on Lake Ontario in Canada. Every year on August 6 the anniversary of the bombing, he travels to New York to participate in a commemorative conference. He continues to believe his work was important and saved lives in the war and he defends his work at each conference. In 1995, where most of the novel takes place, the Japanese woman, now 56 attends the conference and meets the German scientist. Normally wary of bombing victims, the scientist agrees to be interviewed by the Japanese woman for a documentary and then invite her to Canada to view his personal Hiroshima films.

Enola Gay

On the crewman who dropped the bomb Bock writes:

But when he saw the bomb fall away like a great dinosaur egg, his sense of purpose returned. He knew how powerful this thing was said to be. But he’d trained himself not to contemplate it. Remember the big picture, he thought…. Win the war.

Shrine Hiroshima Ruins
This building became an icon of the bombing appearing in Alain Resnais’ s 1959 movie Hiroshima Mon Amour. The building was preserved as a monument and reminder.

tour de farce

Sunday, July 29th, 2007

Tour de France 2007 report

We normally report only on books but the recently completed Tour de France bicycle race was too dramatic to resist. Normally the CBS one hour weekly summary of the race is superficicial but today July 29 they did an excellent job of sorting out and reporting the scandals of this final week of the race.

Alexandre Vinokourov Alexandre Vinokourov

After losing 30 minutes in stage 14, Alexandre Vinokourov came back in stage 15 to win by five minutes. He then tested positive for blood doping and the entire Kazakhstan team Astane was disqualified.

Team Confidis protested Rabobank’s Michael Rasmussen’s missing two drug tests in June by delaying the start of stage 16. Cristian Moreni of Confidis then tested positive for drugs after stage 16, ironically, and the entire team was disqualified. Rasmussen won stage 16 and held a commanding 3 minute lead heading into the final time trial.

Rasmussen Family Rasmussen Family

Michael Rasmussen claimed that he was in Mexico with his Mexican wife during the missed drug tests in June. If he misses three out of race drug tests it is considered a positive result. Davide Cassani, former professional bicycle rider and Italian television commentator saw Rasmussen training in the Dolomites and praised him for his dedication, not realizing that Rasmussen claimed to be in Mexico at the time. The Cassani news aired in Italy and later Rasmussen held a press conference still claiming he was in Mexico. When told of the Italian news, Rabobank team manager DeRooy confronted then fired Rasmussen from the team after Rasmussen admitted to lying about his whereabouts. Rasmussen had been in the leader’s yellow jersey for nine days when fired. CBS praised Rabobank for its decision which was not required since technically Rasmussen had not failed a drug test.

Tour winners
Cadel Evans Alberto Contador Levi Leipheimer

The shocked race continued and after the final time trial only 31 seconds separated 1st through 3rd place. Spaniard Alberto Contador of Discovery Channel won the race by 23 seconds over Australian Cadel Evans of Predictor-Lotto and 31 seconds over Discovery Channel team leader Levi Leipheimer. Contador, only 24 years old was named in the Spanish drug scandal a year ago but was cleared.

The world of cycling has been caught up in drug scandals since the Festina team scandal of 1998 with team director Bruno Roussel and team lead Richard Virenque and the entire Festina team banned from racing. Festina’s director and doctor were charged under French law with drug violations.

Before the race, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were named in a Spanish drug scandal and both retired from racing. Floyd Landis, last year’s winner, has still not been cleared of doping charges and is under a cloud.

This year was even worse than the 1998 race but CBS tried to put a positive face on things. This year saw 50 first time riders, one Contador, winning the race. Maybe a new generation will clean up racing. Rabobank voluntarily fired a rider for lying to them about his whereabouts, so maybe the teams themselves will start to take a more active roll in enforcement. Don’t hold your breath.

For an even more pessimistic look see RIP

Indian Tragedy

Monday, July 23rd, 2007

The Shadow of the Great Game The Untold Story of India’ s Partition, Narendra Singh Sarha, 2006

Written by a lifetime Indian diplomat and onetime aide-de-camp to Lord Mountbatten, this is the well researched account of the partition of India to create Pakistan in 1947. The book was the number one bestseller in India. The Great Game is the name used to describe the rivalry and strategic conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia from about 1813 until 1907. The term was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his work Kim. Sarila believes that the most important factor leading Britain to support the creation of Pakistan after WWII was their fear of Russian Soviet expansion into the Middle East and South Asia. Britain came to believe that the British dominion, Pakistan, envisioned by Muhammad Ali Jinnah would be a continuing ally, source of troops, base of operations, in their attempt to contain the Soviet Union. Congress Party president Jawaharlal Nehru, insisted on the non alignment and neutrality of an independent India.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi

The great Mohandas Karamchand Mahatma Gandhi comes off here as an ineffective loose canon. He is reported to have said in June 1940 to the Viceroy of India Linlithgow, who thought he must be senile;

Let them (Nazis) take possession of your beautiful Island, if Hitler chooses to occupy your homes, vacate them, if he does not give you free passage out, allow yourself, man, woman, and child to be slaughtered.

The next day Gandhi wrote a letter to Linlithgow;

You are losing: if you persist it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man. If you call it off to-day he will follow suit. If you want to send me to Germany or anywhere else I am at your disposal.

At this time Gandhi said that he “…expected the Jews to pray for Hitler, who was not beyond redemption.” A biographer Robert Payne comments:

In the quiet of the ashram the greater quiet of the gas chambers was inconceivable; he did not have and could not have any imaginative conception of their plight, nor had he much conception of dictatorships.

Gandhi also wrote to Hitler in December 1941:

In the non-violent technique there is no such thing as defeat…I had intended to address a joint appeal both to you and Signor Mussolini

Gandhi had supported the British during the Boar War and during WWI but since had developed his ideas of satyagraha (non-violence) and Indian mass movement using traditional Hindu religious techniques such as fasting. He spent most of his time in his ashram. He became enormously popular in India and in the West but was unprepared for the realities of WWII. He remained ineffective and tragically outside of decision making through the key period.

In the meanwhile, and without Congress interference, the British to able to recruit as many soldiers as they could train, over 2.5 million throughout the war. During the war, India’ s role as a market for British goods declined, but the requirements for fighting manpower became the colonies chief value to Britain. 35% of Indian soldiers were Muslims and 50% of all soldiers came from one province the Punjab.

Nehru and Gandhi
Nehru and Gandhi

Jawaharlal Nehru, pushed by his father, Motilal Nehru, to become President of the Congress Party, and named by Gandhi his legal successor, comes off here as a longwinded, indecisive, ineffective, naive, almost innocent politician. The entire Congress Party withdrew from the British created Federal government in 1939 after demanding a British promise of complete independence for India after the war.

Winston Churchill was notorious for his hatred of India and Gandhi. Throughout the war, British leaders had no intention of losing India as a colony. The British leaders perhaps foresaw a gradual transition over forty or fifty years, of India into a Commonwealth nation like Canada or Australia.

FDR saw WWII as demonstrating the need of Europe to divest themselves of their colonies immediately after the war. Since the US lost the Philippines to Japan early in the war, Churchill met this advocacy with some skepticism:

The concern of the Americans with the strategy of a world war was bringing them into touch with political issues on which they had strong opinions and little experience…states which have no overseas colonies or possessions are capable of rising to moods of great elevation and detachment about the affairs of those who have.

Britain had divided India into eleven administrative provinces. There were still 350 princely states in India with Hyderabad the size of France and Rajasthan even larger. Muslims made up a quarter of the population of India, about 90 million as a whole and were in the majority only in the British provinces; the NorthWest Frontier, Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan, and Bengal, with about 30 million. None of these provinces was in favor of partition.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a secular non practicing Muslim living in Bombay, a dandy lawyer married to a beautiful younger Parsi (the most westernized of Indians originating in Persia 1000 years ago and having their own religion and traditions) woman. Jinnah was so ignorant of Muslim traditions that he scheduled a lavish dinner for a visiting British dignitary during Ramadan, a period of Muslim fasting. Sarha characterizes Jinnah as a megalomaniac.

Jinnah’ s Muslim league was in decline, capturing only a quarter of the votes in all Muslim elections. He latched onto the idea of partition in a desperate attempt to gain personal power. Sarha discovered that Churchill and Jinnah carried out a secret correspondence over some years via a person living in the Churchill household. For Jinnah partition was a power play, for Churchill and the British authorities in India the idea that the princely states and provinces might choose to divide from India after the war was the old British strategy of divide and conquer. Churchill also made this concession to appease FDR. The Congress leaders refused to compromise their position of full independence and remained outside the process.

In July 1942, believing that the axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan) would win the war, a furious Gandhi initiated a Quit India, ratified by the Congress in August, demanding that the British grant immediate independence to India and leave. The British reacted by arresting the leaders and putting down demonstrations and riots. Gandhi lost even the support of the Labour Party in Britain with this move:

If you persist in demands which are at this moment impossible to grant, you will cripple your cause and humble the influence of us who are your proud and faithful advocates.

To regain some support Gandhi initiated a fast in February 1943 from prison. Unimpressed, Churchill wired Linlithgow; I understand Gandhi has glucose in his water could you confirm? FDR conveyed to London the message that “Gandhi should not be allowed to die in prison.

Sarha portrays Gandhi’s later life as pathetic and futile stating that the last great service Gandhi gave for India was in 1932 where he successfully opposed holding separate elections for the lower castes (separate elections were held for Muslims since 1907.) Today the lower castes make up 20% of the population and wield great political power.

Field Marshal Wavell
Field Marshal Wavell

In 1943 a new viceroy was appointed, Field Marshal Wavell, an upper middle class military man with victories over the Italians in North Africa and stunning defeats against the Japanese in Singapore, Malaysia, and Burma. The vice royalty was considered by Churchill an honorable retreat for a man “eminently suited to run a provincial country club.” Wavell came to the job with extreme animosity toward the Congress party. He had suffered the defection of 50,000 Indian troops to revolutionary Subhash Chandra Bose, a Congress member, in Malaysia and sabotage of military facilities in the Congress Quit India campaign.

By 1944 Wavell came to the conclusion that the best way forward was to build up Jinnah and create a British dominion, Pakistan, where British forces could maintain bases including the ports at Karachi and Dacca and from which it could continue to recruit military forces.

After the war much had changed. An Indian scholar writes:

The growing role of strategic air power and the vital importance of Middle Eastern oil had transformed British policy in Asia. For over a century, British policy in the Gulf had largely been shaped by the strategic interests of her Indian Empire. This was no longer the case… By 1947, the tables had been turned – Britain’ s strategic interests in the Gulf and Middle East had become a major factor in her South Asia policy.

1945 brought a number of pressures and changes. The Labour Party won the election in Britain. The Americans dropped the Atom bomb on Japan ending the war and leading the Americans to increase pressure on Britain to eliminate their colonies. A major famine swept India due to both lack of resources and the growing incompetence of the British Raj; The British colonies were costing the government 2 billion pounds annually which the British had to borrow from America.

Labour believed they could work effectively with Nehru and Congress. Unfortunately Labour also appointed two pro-Jinnah cabinet members to key Indian positions, one a former aid to Linlithgow, the other a close associate of Churchil. Wavell remained viceroy. The official Labour policy was:
1 Britain must maintain bases of operation in India to counter the Soviets.
2 Partition is the only way to guarantee 1 since Congress will not promise to cooperate with Britain on foreign policy.
3 Partition must not be attributed to Britain.

Indian Partition Map
Indian Partition Map

In February 1946 Wavell introduced his blueprint for Pakistan, shown in green on the map, dividing Punjab to pacify the Sikhs with Gurdaspur and Amristsar their holy city remaining in India, and dividing Bengal to pacify the Hindu majority in Calcutta. The provinces to remain in India are shown in orange. No provision was made for the fate of the princely states, uncolored on the map.

Nehru sent a typically longwinded letter to the British in January 1946 giving his position which is quite clear; the fate of India should be left to plebiscites in the provinces; Jinnah’ s support is shallow and could be overcome easily; Muslim majority provinces are unlikely to vote for partition; Indians are prepared to struggle against Britain for independence.; Nehru would prefer a negotiated settlement.

Muslim elections in India in 1946 showed Jinnah’ s Muslim league strong in Hindu dominant provinces and weak in the designated Pakistan provinces where the Muslims were already in control.

Cripps and Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru with Sir Stafford Cripps

In March 1946 Labour Prime Minister Clement Richard Attlee sent a delegation headed by Sir Stafford Cripps to negotiate with Nehru and Congress with instructions to avoid Gandhi. Their goal was to get Congress to agree to a truncated Pakistan and enable the British to avoid blame and responsibility for the partition while assuring their military bases. The attention of this delegation made Congress leaders, promised control of a provisional government to oversee the transition to full independence, complacent while giving Jinnah the opening to launch direct violent action to force British acceptance of Pakistan. Attlee achieved his objective to:
1 put Congress leaders in charge of the interim government where they would be placated but blamed for any failure.
2 put on record the disadvantages of Pakistan scheme to later whittle away at Pakistan in later negotiations with Jinnah.
3 give the world the impression that Britain and Labour are trying to keep India united.

In July 1946 Jinnah opted out of the agreement and in August launched a violent attack against Hindus and Sikhs in Bengal and Bihar the only provinces controlled by the Muslim League. In the ensuring violence 5000 were killed and 20,000 injured. Wavell did not hold Jinnah responsible but used the violence to advance his views that Muslims and Hindus can’t coexist and partition is necessary.

Nehru assumed the position of prime minister of the provisional government and a new Congress leader emerges, Sardar Patel, a tough, practical politician. Patel advocated focusing Congress attention on the British, preventing the princely states from breaking with India and limiting the scope and damage of the Muslim League without direct confrontation. Wavell, in August 1946, believing that the British could hold out for no more than 18 months, submitted his plan for British withdrawal from Congress controlled provinces and the princely states. Wavell pressured Nehru into accepting Jinnah and the Muslim league into the interim government without Jinnah’ s agreeing to the principles of the government or promise calling off violent actions, thus enabling Jinnah to undermine the Nehru government from within.

The British had divided the NWFP province, designated to be part of the new Pakistan into two administrative parts, the settled Pathan regions including the cities, and the area of the nomadic Pathan tribes. The boundary with Afghanistan was drawn up in 1893, the Durand line, but the border has still not been accepted by Afghanistan. The British controlled the nomadic area through “subsidies”, a small cadre of tribal experts, and 10,000 troops. Their policy of control was always the less seen the better. The Amir of Kabul warned; “if at any time a foreign enemy appears on the boundaries of India these frontier tribes will be your worst enemy.” Over 30 major invasions of India have come through this area over the last 2000 years.

The NWFP considered Jinnah a pawn of the British and consistently supported the Congress party as long as they remained unseen. The naive Nehru decided to visit this province in October 1946. The tribes met him with hostility and demonstrations. Wavell said of the visit “Nehru’s visit more than anything else made partition inevitable.

Lord Mountbattens
Lord Mountbatten

In March 1947 Louis Mountbatten, navy rear admiral and former supreme commander of southeast Asia was named viceroy. He has often been blamed for partition but like the good soldier he was, he was simply carrying out orders, if creatively. His charter:
1 fix responsibility for the division of India squarely on Indian shoulders.
2 persuade Congress leaders to give up NWFP and persuade Jinnah to accept a much smaller Pakistan.
3 Ensure that India remain a member of the British Commonwealth.

The Mountbattens and Gandhi
The Mountbattens and Gandhi

After meeting Nehru and V. P. Menon, Mountbatten decided to leave item 3 til last. Mountbatten, pretending to oppose partition, asked immediately to meet with Gandhi who had been ignored by previous viceroys. Gandhi became a regular source of information about Congress matters. Gandhi offered the suggestion that Jinnah be asked to form a new interim government. Mountbatten ignored Gandhi. Sarha points out that had Gandhi made this offer in 1928 and not in 1947 and Jinnah had become president of the Congress Party instead of Nehru, Jinnah, a more able and intelligent politician would have had his ambitions satisfied and the question of partition may never have arisen.

Mountbatten persuaded Jinnah that his strength lay with British support. Jinnah begs;

I do not care how little you give me as long as you give it to me completely…you must realize that the new Pakistan is almost certain to ask for Dominion status.

The British plan was that elected members of assemblies in each province be given a free choice of independence or affiliation with the new All-India Constituent Assembly. This presented a problem in NWFP, which would choose affiliation as its assembly stood. Olaf Caroe Britain’ s expert on tribal affairs had been appointed Raj Governor of NWFP. Mountbatten convinced Nehru to accept a new province wide referendum on the question since Congress may have lost its mandate since the last election.
Bengal, with its distinct culture and own language would certainly choose to be independent.
The deal as understood by go-between V. P. Menon was now;
1 the Wavell plan for a smaller Pakistan.
2 immediate transfer of power.
3 under the Act of 1935, the independent states would automatically become Commonwealth nations without Assembly action.
4 If India accepts the truncation of NWFP, Mountbatten will persuade the princes to join one or another state and not opt for independence.

This would mean 90% of princely territories would become part of India offsetting the loss of NWFP.

V. P. Menon had been born in the princely state of Cochin (now Kerala) and as the most able Indian tactician, draftsman, and negotiator, played a key role in total absorption of the princely states into India.
V. P. Menon became Mountbatten’ s closest adviser and believed that all territorial issues and boundaries should be resolved before independence to avoid instability and chaos after the hand-over. V. P. Menon raised this issue with Nehru in May 1947 and Nehru agreed.

Mountbatten revealed to Nehru the current British plan for the hand-over, which might have led to the Balkanization of India, should many provinces and princedoms choose independence from India. Faced with the original plan and the possibilities of Balkanization, Nehru was quick to understand the benefits of V. P. Menon’ s alternative to try to resolve all decisions and boundaries before the hand-over. Mountbatten then approached Gandhi with the plan saying it should be called Gandhi’ s plan. Gandhi agreed and intervened with the All-India Congress committee on June 14, 1947. His intervention was decisive.

Mountbatten with V. P. Menon’ s assistance then went one by one to the princely states threatening them with Muslim League inspired violence if they did not agree to join India or Pakistan. They succeeded without a single princedom choosing independence. Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, a friend of Mountbatten surprised him by choosing to accede his kingdom to India, although a majority of the kingdom’s population was Muslim. This set off a series of events and wars between India and Pakistan that continue to this day.

Independence of India and Pakistan was celebrated on August 14, 1947.

Delhi Refugee Camp
Delhi Refugee Camp

Not covered in this book were the massive displacements, violence and deaths caused by partition. As of 1951, 7,226,000 Muslims went to Pakistan from India while 7,249,000 Hindus and Sikhs moved to India from Pakistan. About 11.2 million or 78% of the population transfer took place in the west, with Punjab accounting for most of it. 5.3 million Muslims moved from India to West Punjab in Pakistan. 3.4 million Hindus and Sikhs moved from Pakistan to East Punjab in India. Elsewhere in the west 1.2 million moved in each direction to and from Sind. Deaths were estimated at 1 million but may have been as high as 1.5 million.

There have been three wars between India and Pakistan since independence. In 1971 a civil war in East Pakistan split the country apart to form the new nation of Bangladesh. India and Pakistan became nuclear powers in 1998 increasing the risks in future warfare between the two.

Two years after leaving India Wavell said in 1949:

There are two main material factors in the revolutionary change that has come over the strategical face of Asia. One is air power, the other is oil…The next great struggle for world power, if it takes place, may well be for the control of these oil reserves…This may be the battleground both of the material struggle for oil and air bases, and of the spiritual struggle of at least three great creeds – Christianity, Islam, Communism – and of the political theories of democracy and totalitarianism.

Around such lofty principals do people suffer, become refugees, and die.

Humanitarian Communist

Friday, July 20th, 2007

The Communist’s Daughter, Dennis Bock, 2007

This novel is written as a series of disjointed memoirs intended for the daughter he has never met of Norman Bethune a battle field surgeon in China during the war against Japan in 1938 and 1939.

Chinese Battlefield

Norman Bethune is an actual historic figure, a Canadian doctor and communist member immortalized by Mao Tse-tung himself who published Bethune’ s memoirs detailing the last five months of his life after Bethune’ s death in China in 1939. Mao said of Bethune;

We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him. With this spirit everyone can be very helpful to each other. A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people.

Bethune was born in 1890 of missionary parents and served in the No.2 Field Ambulance Medical Corps in France as a stretcher-bearer during WWI. His war ended when he was hit by shrapnel. He joined the communist party in 1935 and joined the Republican cause in Spain in 1936-7 as a field surgeon. In Spain he had an intimate relationship with beautiful Swedish born Kajsa von Rothman. They were suspected of spying although neither Rothman nor Bethune were arrested. Bethune left Spain under a cloud. Nothing is known of Rothman’s fate. In 1938 Bethune was in China assisting the communist army in the fight against Japan. He died of a cut received during surgery in 1939. His life has been the basis of at least three films, Dr Bethune was made in China in 1964.

Spanish Transfusion Unit

Bethune spent much of his life treating battlefront injuries and developed many tools and techniques. Heroic statues of Bethune have been erected throughout China. Bethune College at York University, Toronto, and Dr Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, Ontario, were named after him.

Norman BethuneMontreal

The novel portrays Bethune as driven man, incapable of sustaining relationships with woman or friendships with men. He is impatient with others yet seems always willing to teach and to jump in wherever he is needed. Written as his own memoirs for a daughter he has never met, a child by his lover in Spain Kajsa, Bethune emerges as a man who understands very little about himself. Reconstructing his life from his writing would be a challenge should the daughter ever receive the envelopes. In the end, the communist party at the highest level decides to hold the memoirs and decide whether they will be released after their victory in China.

Family Secrets

Tuesday, July 17th, 2007

Lies, Enrique De Heriz, Translated from the Spanish 2007

In this family from a small fishing village near Barcelona, the aging father, a painter and family story teller, suffers from Parkinson’s. The mother, a pioneering retired anthropologist specializing in primitive death rituals, travels to an isolated Guatemala resort to be alone. The oldest son is a supposedly successful divorced lawyer; his son, after an 18 month coma, suffers from brain damage and can only blurt out truths. The second son is a divorced pianist and composer. The daughter is single, pregnant, 38 years old, a truth seeker. The novel is written alternately in the voice of the mother and the daughter.

Calella de Palafrugell

The book concerns itself with family myths created by the painter and his mother about his father Simon who died before the painter was born; of the Russian woman next door who swam nude in her own private cove and posed for a nude portrait now hanging in the family home; and of Chinese poet Li Po.

Chimino’s Island Lodge

The mother secretly researches Simon and the Russian woman to discover the truth behind the myths but accidentally “dies” in a Guatemala boating mishap. In reality she discovers the body of a European woman and her own backpack accompanies the body to authorities who notify the family. The mother stays silent curious to observe or imagine the rituals surrounding her own “death”. She discovers, for all her studies, that she is unprepared to die.

The Custodian of Paradise, Wayne Johnston, 2007, Canada

St John's Harbor

Set largely in St John’s, Newfoundland from early in the 20th century into WWII, this is the story of an unusual woman. Abandoned by her mother when she was 6, the girl grows to an astounding 6 foot 3 inches in her early teens. Her father is a doctor, much ridiculed and at the margins of the St. John’s society of quality. Traumatized by the abandonment by his wife a Boston socialite and former nun, the small father must now bear the rumors that he is not the father of so tall a girl.

To defend herself from the disapproval and teasing of school mates and town people, the girl develops a quick wit and sharp tongue. At 15 she becomes pregnant and goes to Manhattan, to her remarried mother’s house, to have her baby, actually twins, a boy and a girl. The babies are raised by her mother as if they were her own, and the girl returns to St. John’s.

She does not return to her private school but enters an essay contest offered by the local newspaper. Her biting, cynical essay wins the contest and the editor hires her to write a witty column. She targets society, the clergy, the school masters, politicians, and most every other power in St. John’s. The newspapers circulation jumps. She writes using a pseudonym and often writes and signs letters from prominent citizens. She becomes known as “Fielding the Forger”, smokes cheap strong cigarettes and drinks moonshine liquor during prohibition.

The novel is written in the modern time-line shuffling manner. During WWII she finds and lives on an abandoned island where she can be alone to think and to write. The novel moves between her activities and writing on the island, and accounts of her school days, time in Manhattan, column writing and drinking, etc.

The driving mystery of the novel is the girl trying to understand why her mother abandoned her, who her biological father is, what has happened to her children. Returning to Manhattan, she comes down with TB spends two years in a sanitarium and is left crippled. 500 pages long, the style, settings, and mysteries keep you reading. Most interesting, perhaps, is what it is like to live in a small provincial society as an outcast. St. John’s today has a population of 100,000.

The Poet as Novelist

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje, 2007

We have art, Nietzsche said, so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.

In this new novel, Ondaatje brings his skills as poet to the novel as never before. In an incredible 38 pages, Ondaatje creates a universe populated by three unrelated children raised by a single father on a farm near Petaluma and then blows that universe to smithereens. For most writers, this 38 pages would be a heavy, black slog of a several hundred page complete novel (see Larry McMurtry’s or Cormick McCarthy’s latest).

Petaluma Downtown Petaluma

From this beginning, over the next 20 pages we follow the farm boy into the amazing world of card hustling in Santa Barbara county, Tahoe, and Las Vegas.

Santa Maria Inn

…Tolstoy was able to walk into a room that held a small group of people and understand everything about them in fifteen minutes…The only person in the room he could not understand was himself.

Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe Lodge

Followed by 35 pages in a French manoir, former home to an obscure French writer in the early 20th Century, now rented by the biological daughter of the Petaluma single Father, a French literature academic with a new name and identity. On the manoir she meets an older Roma man who grew up on the manoir, knew the French writer as a boy, and still lives in his caravan. They become lovers.

Gascony Manoir Gascony Manoir

We take a short breather to catch up with the remaining girl who works in San Francisco as a researcher for a public defender and returns to Petaluma to visit her “father” every weekend. We then jump quickly back and forth between the stories.

The three of them…made up a three paneled Japanese screen, each one self sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the other. Their lives, surely, remained linked wherever they were.

Suddenly we are dropped into France around the first world war, following the full arc of the obscure writer’s life, his mother, the young neighbors, the war, his children, his writings. This is the longest continuous part of the novel, a little over 100 pages.

But for Lucien, writing was a place of emergency. He wanted what he had done those first few times, without awareness, when the page was a pigeonnier flown into from all the realms one had traveled through. There had been the gathering then, the thrill of diversity. There was no judgment. He had not sought judgment when he began to write, but it had somehow become crucial to his life. When all he had wanted was to dance, with no purpose, with a cat.

All this in 273 pages.

In The Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje, 1987

Coming into his own as a novelist utilizing uniquely poetic language, this novel is set in Ontario, mostly Toronto. Focusing on the anonymous laborers who built Toronto’s major public works projects, this novel leaves numerous unforgettable images.

Toronto Waterworks Toronto Waterworks

    The Macedonian acrobat leaping off the Prince Edward Viaduct to take his place under the bridge, under construction in 1917 . (Writer H. S. Bhabra leaped to his death from this Viaduct in 2000.)
    Five nuns walking on the unfinished bridge when one is swept off by a gust of wind, her body never found.
    The self taught logging and mining dynamiter, passing his skills wordlessly to his son, Patrick, as he blows logs effortlessly out of river log jams.
    The millionaire predatory developer who suddenly vanishes in 1919 with a million dollars in cash and his mistress an actress who is the only one to know where he is.
    The dynamiter’ s son, Patrick who is paid to look for the developer and falls in love with the actress, loses her and goes to work on the lake Ontario water works tunnel in 1930 and later in the leather works.
    Caravaggio the thief, and Hana as a young girl comfortable among the immigrant workers who will both reappear in The English Patient (Was Hana’s mother the missing nun?).
    Patrick, turned anarchist bomber, after the death of Hana’s mother, swimming through the water intake of the waterworks with explosives strapped to his body.

This one in 244 pages.

The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” Meander if you want to get to Town.

Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje, 1976

Coming Through Slaughter

See Also

A novel based on the real life of early 20th Century New Orleans jazz-man Charles “Buddy” Boldon, Ondaatje says;

There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.

Here is old New Orleans, the parades, the barber shop cooled with ice where Buddy works, endless practice on the Cornet, Buddy the loudest horn man in New Orleans, learning tunes by ear then immediately improvising off them, mixing blues and Gospel (will heaven or hell prevail?), pickpocket monkeys, whores, pimps, Buddy’s two women, fights, descent into madness, Buddy’s life in and history of a pre civil war asylum, lost history of jazz and jazzmen with a couple reels of bad film and a few recordings. This one in 150 pages. On the train ride to the asylum;

And all day, the river at our side, Mississippi, like a friend, traveling with him, like an audience watching Huck Finn going by train to hell.

Already Ondaatje is developing his uniquely poetic style of the novel. Only the more long winded Richard Powers comes close: see

Shaky Globe

Monday, July 9th, 2007

Connected: 24 Hours in the Global Economy, Daniel Altman, 2007

A compact 255 pages this is a wide ranging exploration of topics in the global economy; synergies; good governance and independence of central bankers; corruption; money supply; stock markets; oil; stability; intellectual property; disruptions like weather events. Using the gimmick of first person accounts of their workday June 15, 2005 by various global actors we get an idea the the wide range of activity and complexity of the global economy. These first person narratives by some global economy globetrotters reminds us of the assessment of B. H. Bahbra’s diplomat Burnham:

They know so little. They are so small, so stupid, so arrogant, empty and assured, without even the wealth or empire which gave us our assurance. They travel without tasting. They look but do not see.

Google Earth Develops a Wobbly Spin
Wobbly Globe

Altman asks if the financial system is becoming more vulnerable to the actions of a few. He sites the employee of private Swiss bank Julian Bar who stole virtually all client records, 169 megabytes worth.

In 1995 employee Nicholas Leeson in Singapore singlehandedly destroyed 233 year old investment bank Barings through his derivative trades. In 1996, Leeson published his autobiography, Rogue Trader. The book was later made into a film starring Ewan McGregor. Leeson today is a professional gambler and has written a second book on how to deal with stress.

In 1998 Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund masterminded by two Nobel Laureate economists lost so much on its interest rate bets that it had to be rescued by the Federal Reserve and a group of Wall Street giants. The Fed believed that letting LTCM go under would have destabilized the entire worldwide financial community.

In 2002 currency trader John Rusnak cost his employer, Allied Irish Bank nearly $700 million in secret losses.

In 2005 a broker at Mizuho Securities in Tokyo entered an order to sell 610,000 shares of a stock at 1 yen each instead of 1 share of stock at 610,000 yen. The trade could not be reversed. Cost to Mizuho; $224 million.

Wall street has had to implement a system which automatically stops all trading if the market makes too big a move. Program electronic trading reacts instantly and automatically (without human intervention) to big falls in prices. Again, this shows how unstable the global financial system is today.

Altman speculates about what would happen if a rogue employee at Moody’s suddenly downgraded the US Treasury Notes and Bonds by a single notch. This single individual action could automatically trigger an electronic sell off on such a massive scale as too destabilize the the entire world and put the US government at risk of insolvency, unable to borrow to cover its massive indebtedness.

Disillusioned Pakistani

Monday, July 2nd, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid, 2007

A slender novel exploring the disillusion of a Pakistani Princeton graduate, newly hired New York master of the universe, in love with a wealthy beautiful New York socialite. Did 9-11 start his disillusionment; or was it the mental illness of his lover; or was it the Chilean publisher pointing out the similarities of his career situtation to that of the Christian Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire? The language is engrossing and perceptive as here where he ruminates on New York after 9-11

I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolor but in grainy black and white.

Food Street Lahore
Lahore Food Street

He quits his New York job and returns to Lahore. The novel is structured entirely as a monologue by the disillusioned Pakistani given in a Lahore restaurant to a complete stranger, a large silent foreigner, possibly an American spook, who may or may not come to grief at the end of the evening. Masterfully nuanced performance.

Moth Smoke, Hohsin Hamid, 2000

Moth Smoke, titled for the moth’s love of the flame, and written before the military coup d’état of general Pervez Musharraf in October 1999 and before the events of 9-11, was Hamid’s first novel. Set in Lahore at the time of Pakistan’s first nuclear test in May 1998, a time of fear and economic disruption, mixed with pride as Pakistan becomes the worlds first Muslim member of still small nuclear bomb club; the novel explores the effects of monumental corruption on two best childhood friends.

The boys’ fathers were in the military during the West Pakistan – Bangladesh fighting in 1971. One father dies and the other turns to corruption believing that one is either an exploiter or will become the exploited. The father builds a fortune through bribery and kickbacks from foreign corporate contracts then turns to money laundering to sustain and expand his fortune.

When his mother dies the friend’s son becomes an orphan raised by an uncle. The rich father assures the orphan attends the best schools in Pakistan where he associates with his son and other elite children. The orphan applies for college in the States but is unable to get financial aid so he attends college in Pakistan while all his circle of school friends leave for England or the States.

Lahore Country Club
Country Club

The orphan studies for a doctorate in Pakistan under a radical professor choosing as dissertation subject Mohammad Unis micro credit financing. He drops out to accept a banking job arranged by his friend’s father. He grows increasingly resentful of his job as servant (pretty well paid) to the rich and corrupt and is fired just as his friend returns, sexy wife and child in tow, from a successful career in New York. From a “small fish in a big pond” he immediately becomes a part of the young social elite by virtue of his father’s wealth.

The novel is an account of the orphan’s decline and final destruction while his former friend continue to thrive through his family’s corrupt ways, carrying large sums of money to Switzerland and the Cayman Islands for laundering.

Lahore Charpoy

One of the most compelling sections explores the effects of air conditioning in separating the haves from the have nots in Lahore where summertime temperatures can reach 115 degrees (Just like Phoenix, although the homeless can go to the underutilized downtown public library during the day but only if they do not fall asleep). The orphan finally understands poverty when his power is disconnected for non payment and he is forced to live for the first time as an AC have not.

A street urchan, who knows that air conditioners throw off hot air into the streets is confused by the insistence of the rich that ACs produce cold air.

Manucci realized what all this had to mean. It meant people thought what he called hot air was cold air. So whenever he walked down the street past the back of a protruding AC, he would smile and say, “What cold air it makes. Wonderful.”

Pakistan has too little and notoriously unreliable electric power, not coincidentally because of bribes, kickbacks and shoddy foreign corporate contract work. The power problems are small inconvenience to the elite who use a little of their corrupt gains to buy personal power generators.

The novel changes voices from the orphan, to his friend, to his friend’s father, to his friend’s wife, so we get to see their various lives from their own viewpoint. At first jarring, this technique may be the only way to allow us to feel some empathy for the rationalizations used by each actor for justifying his otherwise reprehensible actions. Its a little like listening to Alfie (Michael Caine in the original movie) rationalize his actions. There are no heroes here.