Of walls, wars, food and games
As books grow more expensive, reviewing them becomes one of the few appreciating activities in what the euphemistic refer to as “the global economic downturn”. It is more than that, however: it is the end of capitalism as we know it.
But was there a flood of books examining the system’s terminal problems? No.
People remain locked in a denial syndrome, unwilling to face up to climate change, overpopulation and the perils of so-called free enterprise and the laissez faire.
Twenty years ago capitalism seemed to have put one over communism.
Soon after the Berlin Wall fell, the Iron Curtain was ripped aside and Eastern Europe threw off the Soviet yoke, Granta published New Europe! (Granta 30, Winter 1990). Its then editor, Bill Buford, asked 15 writers “how they understood the events in Central and Eastern Europe”. That was on December 1 1989. The resulting texts, gathered under the heading “The State of Europe: Christmas Eve, 1989”, are as riveting today, almost 20 years after that December 24, as when first I read them in late 1990.
Among this remarkable assemblage of first drafts of history is George Steiner’s chilling prophecy on page 130: “The new temples to liberty (the 1789 dream) will be McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
As a counterpoint to those, where better to turn than Che Guevara, much exploited cinematically these days. Taking advantage of “The Major Motion Picture, Che Part One”, Harper Perennial put out a new paperback edition of Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War. For those who, under apartheid, had acquired illicit copies of this from De Jongh’s bookshop in Braamfontein, over the road from Wits university, it is a little odd to have this new version, complete with matt-veneer finish and a cover line reading “The revolution that made him a legend”.
But inside, all is familiar, if not always comforting and cheering. (Like the film, in which I’d have preferred Javier Bardem to Benicio del Toro as Che.) So, too, with Guerilla Warfare: The Authorised Edition (also Harper Perennial), which contains corrections made by Guevara himself. My only quibble is its mercenary cover line, “From the bestselling author of The Motorcycle Diaries”.
Other books have been prompted by the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, such as Fidel & Che: A Revolutionary Friendship by Simon Reid-Henry (Sceptre, 2009). Pathfinder Press had its 11th printing of Guevara and Castro’s Socialism and Man in Cuba, and another of my best reads of the year came from this steadfast publishing concern, Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution by Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui and Moisés Síío Wong (Pathfinder Press, sixth printing 2008).
Our History is even more fascinating than its title and subtitle suggest, because all three generals have much to say about the war against the apartheid army in Angola, and the decisive Angolan and Cuban victory at Cuito Cuanavale, which ultimately brought the National Party to the negotiating table.
Chui was most involved, heading the 90th Tank Brigade in Malanje and losing a leg when his vehicle hit an anti-tank mine in the north of Angola.
The losses of war are nowhere more brutally and poignantly accounted than in The Iliad. It is dangerously ambitious, if not outright hubristic, to use Homer’s poem about the rage of Achilles as your source and departure point. Yet that’s exactly what the low-profile, high-talent David Malouf does in Ransom (Chatto & Windus).
Malouf moves imaginatively and thoughtfully beyond Homer, the precursor he always respects. There is no expedience to his embellished and enlarged tale, which concentrates on Priam’s attempts to recover Hector’s body from Achilles. Ransom has been 66 years in the making, from a rainy afternoon in 1943 when Malouf first encountered the story of Troy. For him, and for us, it has been worth the wait.
Worth reading and in many instances re-reading are:
- The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano (Picador, 2008)
Literature as life: Bolano and his characters live to write in this compelling and unforgettable portrait of the pursuit of literature and unflinching statement of aesthetic belief.
- The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009)
The epistolary novel steps into the delightfully entangled and disrupted world of small-town dreamer Andrew Whittaker, landlord, not very handyman, and quixotic editor of an independent literary journal that isn’t.
- The Annotated Wind in the Willows edited by Annie Gauger (WW Norton & Company, 2008)
Each year I re-read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, or at least its pantheistic, animist heart, the chapter “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. Published to mark the 150th anniversary of Grahame’s birthday last year, there is life’s plenty in this sumptuous hardback edited by Grahame expert Annie Gauger and beautifully produced by WW Norton & Company.
Running on the outer margins of the page, Gauger’s annotations are extensive but never intrusive; they add, never detract. Visually, the book is a cornucopia of Grahame illustrators, from Grahame’s confidant W Graham Robertson, who supplied the first three illustrations, through Paul Bransom (1913), Nancy Barnhart (1922) and Wyndham Payne (1927) to the two greatest, Ernest Shepard (1931, 1933 and 1953) and Arthur Rackham (1940), and on to later, less successful visualisations by Disney (ugh) and Monty Python man, Terry Jones.
- Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics by Jonathan Wilson (Orion, 2009)
Art and artifice, stratagems and sleight of feet: they’re all here in this page-turner on the philosophy and praxis of the great thinker-coaches and teams. Essential reading to understand better what really happens during a football game.
- Small Memories: A Memoir by José Saramago (Harvill Secker, 2009)
The Master of Lisbon shows the grandeur of small things recollected in this refulgent memoir of the child, boy and youth from Azinhaga who became the man who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.
- The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (Faber and Faber, 2009)
The Master of Istanbul adopts a simple declarative style in this story of love gained yet thwarted, requited but denied. These entanglements of heart and soul are told in prose the more affecting for its uncharacteristic directness.
- Emperor Can Wait: Memories and Recipes from Taiwan by Emma Chen (Picador Africa, 2009)
I must disclose immediately that I am a friend of Emma’s. It would be remiss, however, not to acknowledge her book. The global hit Sophie’s World by Jostein Garder was described as “The detective novel that thinks it’s a philosophy book”, a formulation that could have been reversed. Emperor Can Wait is a memoir punctuated with anecdotes about food and recipes to accompany those.
Most media coverage has focused on the recipes, but to use the Sophie’s World formulation: “Emperor Can Wait is a recipe book that knows it’s a memoir.” It knows that it is about family, friends and food; about life, love and literature; about where home and the heart are to be found.