Monday 24 September 2018

Warlight - Michael Ondaatje (2018)

Rating: Excellent

The first thing that comes to mind when I consider Warlight is its humanity. Ondaatje authentically portrays how humans can be deeply affected by forces outside of their control. Warlight is one of those novels in which nothing much seems to be happening, and yet it most definitely is. It is testament to Ondaatje's particular way with prose that you come away from reading the novel having been emotionally altered by its contents; the novel is beautifully subtle and yet also deeply moving and powerful. The novel's main protagonist and narrator, Nathaniel, tells the story in hindsight of how his family was affected by WWII and its aftermath, with both his parents leaving him and his sister, Rachel, in the care of such full blooded characters as 'The Darter' and 'The Moth', whilst they embark on mysterious life paths that only become clearer as the novel reaches its denouement. Ondaatje's prose is pared back, yet is full of emotional and psychological depth, and as with all great writers, it appears to be effortless. 

One of my favourite parts of the novel involves another book, called The Roof-Climbers Guide to Trinity by Geoffrey Winthrop Young (1899), which despite coming across as pure invention by Ondaatje, turns out to be a real book! Somehow I don't think it will turn up in one of my bibliographic hunting adventures in opportunity shops or second hand book stores, but then again, you never know. Meanwhile I thoroughly recommend Warlight for those who appreciate novels that completely take you into a world previously hidden to you - warlight indeed.

Sunday 9 September 2018

Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda - Michael Burleigh (2006)

Rating: Admirable

Sacred Causes took me about a month to read and whilst in some ways I'm very pleased that I read it I did spend much of that time wishing that I was reading something else entirely. It is perhaps the most detailed history book I've ever read, which is admirable, but it certainly does not make for a book that is light on its feet. Burleigh is erudite to the extreme and builds his arguments with great care, however his style lacks that certain flair that can make history books inspirational; Peter Wilson's mammoth tome Ideas: A History from Fire to Freud (2005) being just one great example. Burleigh covers from the aftermath of WWI, through to the emergence of fascism in Europe, communism in Russia, the cold war period, the troubles in Northern Ireland and finally to 9/11 and its aftermath. It certainly makes for bleak reading and ultimately served as a potent reminder that any human system, whether it be secular or religious, that purports to have the answers in terms of how humans should live and think about the world mostly end up being agents of disaster and death. 

Although Burleigh rightly explores just how viciously the church was treated by fascism and, in particular, communism (they basically slaughtered most of the clergy, whilst also suppressing the church in every other way...) I couldn't help but be reminded of monotheism's historical legacy of righteous death and destruction and that during this historical period it seemed that it was just their turn to be on the receiving end. Burleigh spends a great deal of the WWII section building a detailed (and I mean detailed...) argument defending Catholicism and the then Pope Pius XII and his handling of Nazism and the persecution of the Jews, a position that comes across as quite heavy-handed in the end. Burleigh also indulges in some subjective value judgements in the latter part of Sacred Causes, something that is never a good look for a historian. My advice to history buffs out there - only read this book if you are uncommonly fascinated with religion and its political discontents...or should that be the other way around?