Monday, August 29, 2011

Body of Work, by Christine Montross

I was speaking with a bookish friend recently, and he mentioned Dr. Sherwin Nuland's book, How We Die, which he hadn't read.  "You must," I told him. "It's required reading for anyone who is planning to die... and no, that is not everyone.  Many people never give death a moment's thought, let alone plan for it. It's as if they think it's optional."
Pada Malam Saya Bertemu Teribuana,
original painting by Mohd Hairi Yaakub

Body of Work, Christine Montross' account of her first-semester anatomy course and its requisite dissection of a human cadaver, is a very lyrical meditation (Dr. Montross is also an award-winning poet) on our feelings about the treatment of dead bodies. Moreover, it's a remarkable look at what makes physicians different from the rest of us. I would recommend this book very strongly to anyone who is facing a lot of time in hospitals. Will it give you any better understanding of medical technology?  No, but it may give you some insight into the doctors.

This is a medical school memoir, but atypical in that the focus is on the relationship between a medical student and her cadaver. The dissection takes all of the first semester at Brown Medical School, a period of four months. Each team of four students is allotted one cadaver. The bodies are preserved in formalin, with their heads and limbs wrapped in gauze to prevent dehydration. Christine and Tripler, one of her teammates and a former ballet dancer, decide they need to see the face of the woman whose body they will dissect and so unwrap her head early in the semester. Both are stunned by how lovely she is. Or was? As she has no navel, another teammate suggests that they call her Eve. From the start, the students wrestle with emotional and intellectual dilemmas: Is this cadaver "human"? They learn things from the dissection that they can learn no other way -- looking at a picture of a skull can in no way prepare them for the difficulty in sawing through it or navigating its inner canyons -- yet the process often feels brutal. At one time or another, they all wonder, are we desecrating this corpse, and if so, can the benefit justify it?

I was amazed by the differences between the cadavers.  Organs and structures differ in size, in colour, and in some cases, in location.  Of course we all know about external physical variations, but I'd always expected that my heart or thyroid gland would look pretty much like every other woman's. Eve, despite being the smallest cadaver in the lab, had the largest stomach. Such irregularities illuminate the staggering challenges of doctoring, especially of surgery.  Montross describes an operation in which the surgeons cannot locate one of the major blood vessels to cauterise it, and the patient's abdomen fills with blood faster than anyone can suction it out. Four surgeons finally find the vessel and tie it. Moral of the story: there is no such thing as "routine" surgery, because there is no such thing as a standard body.  It struck me as ironic that the one organ which looks pretty much the same from one cadaver to another is the same one in which I would expect to see the greatest variation:  The brain. Montross wonders at this as she simultaneously tries to come to grips with her grandfather's dementia.
When I look at eighteen brains held in the hands of my classmates, I cannot differentiate one from another -- not even in the way that one heart varied from another, or muscles did, or bones. Where, then, in the crenellations of the brain's tissue is the explanation for how a man's reason can depart...?

As the semester progresses, the students dissect with more confidence. They've moved beyond their squeamishness; they are more familiar with the bodies and the dissecting tools. Their very last task, however, is to dissect the head. Some of them behold their cadavers' faces for the first time. One woman flees the lab to vomit. (She quickly ascribes her queasiness to Ramadan fasting, knowing that she, as a doctor-in-the-making, should not display weakness.) Montross herself suffers nightmares and insomnia as they begin to remove Eve's face, eyes and brain.  This last stage of dissection takes a steep toll on the students.  The head is, after all -- much more so than, say, the gall bladder -- our most "human" body part.
When I get home, I take a scalding shower. I scrub my hair, brush my teeth twice, inhale water in my nose until I choke to try to rid it of the smell of the bone dust. That night, at home, Trip calls me to check in. She says that after lab she sat in her car and cried.

Portrait 14, from the Skeleton Series
Original painting by Mohd Hairi Yaakub
The dissection process is the medical student's first confrontation with establishing an appropriate emotional distance between doctor and patient. Montross also relates medical interviews that the students conduct, first with actors, then with real patients.  The first is to see how the students cope with potentially surprising disclosures. The actors might report that they enjoy unusual sexual practices or use illegal drugs. The student doctors must learn to take it all in with equanimity. More heartbreaking are the interviews with real patients, who look hopefully and expectantly to the first-year medical students in their authority-conveying white coats. The patients are unaware that, although the students could name all blood vessels leading into the heart, they had as yet learnt nothing of disease and healing.

The line between caring and callous is not the only nebulous border with which the medical students wrestle. The layman might well assume that the distinctions between alive and dead, between male and female, are among the simplest.  Montross ponders a patient who is yellow in colour, has no sign of any brain or nervous system activity, and is kept alive by machinery which performs the barest critical functions. Is he alive, or not?  His family maintains that he is; Montross felt that his brain death was the end. Who is right?

At the opposite end of life, as she studies embryonic development, gender distinctions grow ever more fuzzy. All embryos start with identical sexual structures which differentiate during gestation.  So will it be a boy or a girl?  Or some of each? all bodily pathways, there can be wrong turns, missed steps, interrupted directions. We learn that even physical gender -- one of the physiologic distinctions we take as the most basic -- is not nearly the black-or-white, male-or-female, pink-or-blue differentiation we have classified it to be... the most widely used pathology textbook in medical schools acknowledges the murkiness of this territory.

She goes on to quote the textbook, identifying four markers determining whether one is male, female, or a muddle of both. Genetic sex:  Is the Y chromosome present? Gonadal sex: What are the characteristics of the sexual glands? Ductal sex: What type of ducts connect the sexual organs? Phenotypical or genital sex: What is the appearance of the external sexual genitalia?
The lack of clear definition -- even lack of clarity regarding the criteria for definition -- surfaces and resurfaces as a theme in medicine. What is male and what female? When is a person alive, and when dead? At times, in fact at most times, specific knowledge in medicine seems to be better understood than general knowledge. 

I think that most of us who are not in the medical field view doctors as vastly knowledgeable and skilled.  Purveyors of answers. And, of course, they are, but this book reminded me of how much they do not -- and perhaps cannot -- know. Our bodies are not machines, and doctors are not mechanics. The simplest questions seem to have the most elusive answers.  Full understanding is impossible.

At the end of their dissection, Montross' team has not determined why Eve has no belly-button.
Dr. Goslow hypothesizes that she had some kind of abdominal surgery and that in the closing of the surgical wound the umbilicus got tucked in, like a seam. "But there's no scar," we protest.  He shrugs. "Maybe she had the surgery at such a young age that the scar just faded away."
We are not satisfied. There was no evidence of major surgery inside Eve's abdomen. There was no scar. And so it remains a mystery, a symbol of how some things about Eve remain unknowable, that our understanding of her cannot help but be only partial, even after the dissection is complete. 

At the end, Montross goes to the lab to bid Eve a final farewell.  (Her remains are sent off either for burial or cremation, as the family wishes.)  She tries to calculate the gift that Eve has given her, and she realises that, when her mother describes her grandfather's femoral artery bypass, she immediately visualises Eve's femoral artery.  When listening to a living patient's lungs, she recalls the look and feel of Eve's.
My hours with her neither cured her nor eased her suffering. Bit by bit, I cut apart and dismantled her, a beautiful old woman who came to me whole. The lessons her body taught me are of critical importance to my knowledge of medicine, but her selfless gesture of donation will be my lasting example of how much it is possible to give to a total stranger in the hopes of healing. That lesson, when I am called to treat critically ill patients who no longer appear human, and prisoners, and demented grandfathers who are dying and angry and scared, is the lesson I hope beyond all else to have absorbed.  

Dr. Christine Montross is now practicing and teaching psychiatry in Rhode Island, U.S.  Body of Work was Washington Post Best Nonfiction Book of the Year and New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice.

A note on the illustrations for this blog entry:  They are a blatant and unapologetic promotion of Hairi's work. He is an enormously talented Malaysian artist, and if you'd like more information about him, please leave a comment and let me know how to contact you.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Scars on the Soul, by Françoise Sagan

Des bleus à l'âme (1972) arrived in the US as Scars on the Soul in 1974. My copy is a hard-cover that belonged to the Moscow, Idaho Public Library in that same year, its cellophane cover barely held in place by brittle, amber Scotch tape, its borrowers' card still in place.

As the story begins, in March 1971, Ms. Sagan addresses us, her readers, directly.  Ah, a preface by the author, I thought, but no.  She's introducing us to her two protagonists, the striking and elegant Swedish siblings, Eleanor and Sebastien van Milhem, whom she resurrected from a play she'd written years before. Now, in 1971, they are living in Paris, and after each fictional episode she pipes up again to discuss them, and herself.  Ah, my lovely Swedes. How shall I feed them, I wonder? I suppose I shall have to invent a foreigner to do it... Then we return to Sebastien and Eleanor for a while, et voila! A foreigner appears -- an older and wealthy American matron who is utterly entranced with Sebastien. He and Eleanor retire with Mrs. Jedelmann to the seaside for the summer.  And so it goes.  Françoise tells us about the van Milhems, and then she tells us about herself. Is one story fictional?  Both or neither? Or just scales of grey? Since she tells both with such panache, fussing about truth vs. fiction just seems petty.

I cringe when I recall the early 1970s, but then, I was in the United States, where people were wearing bell-bottomed trousers and platform shoes. I believe polyester leisure suits were coming into... popularity.  Coming into fashion or coming into vogue they would never do.  Paris, however, seemed to suffer no such lapse in its senses of chic and dignity. I had to remind myself as I read that the story wasn't taking place decades earlier.

In thinking about this novel, the word 'insouciant' kept coming to mind.  How casually the author flips between her characters' lives and her own narrative, as if she just wants to have the occasional tete-a-tete with the reader, who may not realise the difficulties this novel is giving her.
Beware of gaiety. I distrust that insidious euphoria which, after a difficult beginning, grips a writer at the end of two or three chapters and has him muttering to himself: "Hurray, machinery's getting going again!" or "Hurray, we're off!" Innocent mechanic's phrases, true, but occasionally followed by "Hurray, I won't have to commit suicide after all."

 If Ms. Sagan's style is insouciant, though, the story is not. These characters may affect a carefree attitude, and they may be blithely indifferent to money (or the lack of it), but their lives are far from worry-free.  They've simply mastered the knack of being elegantly impoverished.
"After this lunch, according to my calculations, we'll have about three thousand francs left," Sebastien said, screwing up his eyes against the sun. "You're sure you don't want anything else? In that case, we've got enough for a taxi."

"It doesn't make sense," Eleanor said. "If I'd eaten one of those pastries, a taxi would have been a virtual necessity to get me home. Life is badly arranged." They smiled at one another.  

In one of her own sections, Sagan speaks out in favour of loving with no holds barred, of living in grand, Dionysian style. She's hardly going to tell her languorous Swedes to buck up, be sensible, and get a job.
I'm raving, I'm raving and talking nonsense, but so what! I'm feeling rather carried away, after two days in Paris in the company of sensible, practical people whose lives are so well organised that they're dying at top speed, and even, horror of horrors, aware of what's happening to them.

Françoise Sagan is intimately involved with her characters, unlike the New Novelists, who "play with blank cartridges, defused grenades, leaving their readers to create for themselves characters left undelineated between neutral words..."   She describes her vexing relationships with Eleanor and Sebastien, who, after her painstaking attention, have developed their own personalities. She then wonders, how will I ever get them into the emotional states in which I want them?

I wonder if that's not the perennial Gallic dilemma:  How shall we get through the maelstrom with style?  As Sagan notes, "There are so many different ways of dying and so few of them are elegant."
Suicides are very brave and very blameworthy... but certain decencies, such a simulated accident, in private of course, still seem to me more humane, nicer -- the word is inadequate and that's what I like about it -- than this business of flinging your corpse in people's faces...  Decorum, let's have a little decorum! Just because life is inelegant doesn't mean we have to behave likewise. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn

Many thanks to my bibliophile friend, Philippa, for recommending this delectable little book!

The scene:  The fictional island nation of Nollop, which is somewhere in the Atlantic off the coast of South Carolina, named after Nevin Nollop, author of the famous pangram*, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."  The Nollopians revere their nation's founder and his accomplishment, and an honorary cenotaph stands in the centre of the main town. On the base of the monument, his immortal words are reproduced in tiles. This proves unfortunate, as tiles -- and the grout which holds them -- are notably mortal.  When letters begin to drop off, one by one, linguistic mayhem ensues.

*pangram: A sentence which uses all of the letters in the alphabet.

Besides being an enormously imaginative meditation on language, Ella Minnow Pea is a highly entertaining study of tyranny and extremism. The Nollopian Government, you see, is a ruling council of five members. When the Z drops out of 'lazy', they consult the spirit of Nevin Nollop and conclude that it's his wish that his people cease and desist from using that particular consonant.  It really shouldn't be so bad, thinks Ella, our heroine.  Z isn't such a popular letter, after all.  The council, however, insists that words containing the forbidden letter be banned from either spoken or written use, so the book purge begins. The penalties for slips of the tongue include flogging and banishment. Next, the letter K drops to the ground.  As each tile falls and each letter is banned, the novel proceeds without it.

A school teacher, during an arithmetic lesson, momentarily slips and utters the forbidden word used to describe twelve items. The mother of one of the students reports her error to the council.  The informant mother defends her actions in a letter:

... I sincerely believe, as do several who have joined me for biweekly talk group sessions, that Nollop, as one who put great emphasis upon the word, is now attempting to pry us away from our traditional heavipendence on linguistic orthodoxy. Through this challenge, he hopes to move us away from lexical discourse as we now know it, and toward the day in which we can relate to one another in sweet pureplicity through the taciteries of the heart. Brilliant in life -- now brilliant eternal in his conveyances from beyond!

She is not the only one who grows to perceive Nevin Nollop as a deity.  As their language is deprived of one letter after the next, increasing numbers of Nollopians are flogged and deported, or they emigrate beforehand. When the council members are not busy issuing edicts about the ever shrinking alphabet, they are greedily appropriating abandoned properties. On what grounds?  Divine guidance, of course. Ella grumbles to a friend.
Tom tells me that the state operates now only to relate the next letters to omit. There are no other magisterial assertions. The thug-uglies arrest, thrash -- then expel. The high priests generate their alpha-elisions, then return to their lairs to eat what tasties were put there, while praying to Nollop, paying homage to Nollop, stooping, prostrating, salaaming to Nollop. Ignoring all humanity in their Nollop-apotheosis.

Ella steadfastly remains on the isle of Nollop, writing increasingly stilted letters to one and all as her vocabulary must necessarily contort itself around the more limited alphabet. As the population dwindles commensurately, it becomes ever more clear that it will be Ella's task to save her country and its language.  And, with her mighty pen, she does.

If you love language, you'll relish the whimsy of this book. If you need reminding that fascism often starts as mere eccentricity, you need this book. If you need a retreat from, say, Nordic crime fiction and Russian novels that never end, take a welcome holiday trip to Nollop.

Russka, by Edward Rutherford

While I was listening to the audio recording of Anna Karenina, I decided to completely Russify myself by picking up Edward Rutherford's epic historical novel, Russka, in print.  Edward Rutherford is perhaps best known for Sarum, his first novel set in the region of Salisbury, England, spanning millennia.

Cap of Monomakh, Vladimir II
As the book opens, Russka is a fictional village in what is now Ukraine.  Eventually, some of its residents migrate northwards and establish another village, which they also name Russka, not far from present-day Moscow. The story begins in AD 180 and closes with the epilogue in 1990. At both moments, "Softly the wind moved over the land." The wind and vast landscape have, at least, remained constant.

Attempting a single-volume historical novel about Russia spanning such a colossal period is audacious, to put it mildly. The people who occupy the two Russkas are fictional, but they interact with historical figures in a very cleverly devised plot. For the avid Russophile, this book will be relatively light reading, but for someone who is looking for the sweeping overview of Russian history in a enjoyably readable package, Russka is just the ticket.

In AD 180, Russka is a settlement on the edge of the steppe. Its residents don't stray far and remain alert for raids by mounted tribes such as the Alans. The story then moves  forward to the rule of Vladimir I, who established his capital in nearby Kiev and decided, after some research, that his kingdom would be Orthodox Christian.  (I remember from other sources that Vladimir rejected Islam as soon as his ambassadors reported that Muslims eschewed alcohol.)
Everyone knew the story of the Blessed Vladimir’s conversion: how he had sent out to the three great religions – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – and how his ambassadors, having visited Constantinople, reported to him that in the Christian church of the Greek, ‘We did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven.’

Although he emphasises the Russian admiration for the Greek Orthodox religion and culture, Mr. Rutherford makes plain that Russia has always had one foot solidly in the orient; it has never been and will likely never be a European culture.
The courts in the land of Rus were not like those of western Europe. The Russian princes did not seek, like the rulers of Bohemia and Poland, to join the elaborate feudal network of Europe; nor were they interested in its manners or the new ideas of knightly chivalry. Their models, rather, came from the orient. For had not all the rulers of these vast lands come from the east? From the ancient Scythians and Alans who could still be found in their druzhina, from the once vanished Avars and Huns, from the mighty Khazars, the rulers of the borderlands had always been godlike despots from far away. 

Russian history is dotted with tyrants. Whether you lived under Tsar the Terrible or Tsar the Great or even Tsar the Mildly Disturbed, you lived under an iron fist. Throughout the book, however, various characters suggest that autocracy is the only possible government for Russia. In 1113, a character voices the desire for someone to wrest order from the chaos.
‘All we need,’ he told the Khazar, ‘is a wise and godly man, a true prince, a strong ruler.’ It was a medieval phantom that was to be the curse of most of Russian history.

Russka also faced outside menaces galore, like the Tatars, AKA the Mongols, who swept in from the east on their scruffy ponies, wreaking mayhem.  They were not the most highly civilised people, but the Mongols were terrifying archers, armed with...
...bows and two quivers with which they could shoot at the gallop. The bows were fearsome – very large, composite, with a pull of over one hundred and sixty pounds – more powerful, that is, than the famous English longbow. They had a destructive range of up to three hundred yards. Like all his men, Mengu had first learned to draw a bow when he was three.

Weather did not deter the Mongols.
For the general view, that Russia is protected by her winter, is incorrect. The winter is a very good time to attack Russia. In spring and autumn, mud makes the land impassable. In summer, there are large rivers to cross. But in winter, the rivers are frozen solid and it is easy to travel if one is prepared for the cold and knows how to move over the snow. The Mongols were no strangers to harsh winters. They liked them.

By 1454, the Mongols/Tatars had largely taken over Russia, and things were looking grim in other directions, as well.  
How she [Russia] had suffered. For two centuries now she had lain, dismembered, under the Tatar yoke. On every side she was threatened. To the south, Tatars swept across the steppe; to the east, the Tatar Khan – the Tsar, as the Russians called him – and his vassals the Volga Bulgars held their vast Asiatic dominion. And to the west, now, a huge new power had arisen: for in the vacuum left by the collapse of old Russia, the Baltic tribe of Lithuanians – first pagan, now Catholic – had swept across western Russia and taken the land even as far as ancient Kiev itself.

Not long after, Tsar Ivan (the Terrible, or the Awesome, depending upon the translator's bias) took charge.
Ivan: Holy Tsar, Autocrat of all the Russias. No ruler before had taken such titles. And his capital was Moscow. This was the state known to history as Muscovy, and it was already a tremendous power. One by one, in the process known as the Gathering, the mighty cities of northern Russia had fallen to Moscow and her armies. Tver, Riazan, Smolensk – even mighty Novgorod – had given up their ancient independence. And this new state was no federation: the Prince of Moscow was as great a despot as was once the Tatar Khan. Absolute obedience to the centre: this was the doctrine of the Moscow princes. ‘Only in this way,’ their supporters claimed, ‘will the state of Rus return to her ancient glory.’ There was still a long way to go. Even now, most of western Russia and the lands of ancient Kiev in the south, were still in the grip of mighty Lithuania.

Mr. Rutherford does not limit himself to Russian politics -- his characters in the two Russkas give us great views of the local culture and customs throughout the centuries. Rus vs. Tatar, noble vs. peasant, man vs. woman, Cossack (Ukrainian) vs. Russian...  It's far from a homogeneous population.
The Tatars on Muscovy’s borders often lived in these strange, mobile houses – not so much caravans, like those used by the gypsies of western Europe, as wooden huts with small wheels underneath them. To the Tatars, the fixed abodes of the Russians, attracting rats and all kinds of vermin, were like pigsties. To Boris their mobile homes proved that they were shifting and untrustworthy.

The author even slaughters a sacred cow or two. Vodka, not originally Russian?! I haven't been so flabbergasted since I read that the Viennese, not the French, invented the croissant.  
They stopped, briefly, at a little drinking booth where they were serving vodka. He liked this spirit that went down one so easily, even though at this time it was mainly used by the lower classes. It was not a Russian drink at all, but had started to enter Russia from the west through Poland in the last century. Indeed, its very name was only the mispronunciation by Russian merchants of the Latin name it bore: aqua vitae.

We see Tsars come and go, and the families of the two Russkas continue, one generation after the next, to play their small parts in Russia's history.  The Cossacks yearn for greater Ukrainian independence; the Jews meet with increasing hostility; the Orthodox faith confronts a minor schism; the nobles and rulers agonise over how best to deal with the intractable and suffering Russian peasant; the French enlightenment invites interest from some of the nobles and utter scorn from others, but it presages the western European concept of Socialism. All of this history washes through the homes of Russka -- we are not viewing it from within the Kremlin or St. Basil's Cathedral.

As the reign of Tsar Nicholas II winds to its close, one of Russka's noble land-owners has given up. Trying to maintain his estate has ruined him, so he and his family abandon it to the peasants who live upon it as they retire to an apartment in Moscow.  Socialism may be on its way, but Russka does not seem especially fertile ground for the premise that "all men are equal".  The chasms between them are so vast.

They were a typical contrast: the noble in his straw hat, open linen jacket, waistcoat, fob watch and tie, looking so western he might just have come from watching an English cricket match; the Russian peasant, the perfect muzhik, in loose trousers, bast shoes, red shirt and broad belt, unchanged since the ancient times of golden Kiev. Two cultures, both calling themselves Russian, yet with nothing in common except their land, their language, and a church in which neither of them usually bothered to worship.

Maybe, in the end, Russia does need an autocratic ruler, a Tsar of All Russias, a ruler worthy to wear the Cap of Monomakh.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Slaughter and Deception at Batang Kali, by Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor

I recorded this book upon request for the MAB (Malaysian Ass'n for the Blind) Audio Library.

The evidence from eyewitnesses indicates that a platoon of young Scots Guardsmen on patrol during the Malayan Emergency (communist insurgency) in 1949 shot and killed 24 unarmed rubber tappers on a plantation at Batang Kali, a village not far from Kuala Lumpur.

Immediately after the killings, military and colonial authorities were quick to release a story that the rubber tappers were suspected of supplying the "Communist Terrorists" and were shot whilst trying to escape.  Thus began a cover-up campaign that goes on to this day.

In 1949, Malaya was Britain's most lucrative remaining colony. Saddled with war debt and the blow to their colonial pride occasioned by India's messy independence, the British were not keen to lose Malaya to the independence-seeking guerrillas. Although there was never a declared war, Commonwealth troops fought alongside Malayan forces from 1947-1960 using arms and propaganda against the "CTs".  As Chin Peng, the leader of the communist guerrillas, pointed out in his autobiography, it's the prerogative of the winner to label the losing side "terrorists".

The incident at Batang Kali has never entirely gone quiet.  A few members of the Scots Guards patrol came forward to the British press in the late 1960s and issued signed statements acknowledging that the killing had simply been a massacre. Guilt and nightmares had tormented them since 1949, and they were ready to get the weight off their chests.  A Scotland Yard investigation followed, and the investigators seemed on the verge of agreeing that it had in fact been unwarranted killing. They were about to fly to Malaysia to interview witnesses when a Conservative Government was voted in, and their investigation was abruptly closed.

In the 1990s, Malaysian investigators began their own inquiry.  They had completed their interviews with everyone they could find in Malaysia and were preparing to fly to Britain to interview people there. In a move eerily similar to that which ended the Scotland Yard investigation, the Malaysian Attorney General declared the investigation closed.

In both cases, the Attorneys General gave this reason:  It seems unlikely that any prosecutions will follow from this investigation.

Ward and Miraflor raise the questions that will not go away:  All right, but even if no one ever faces prosecution, do the survivors and their kin not deserve to have the truth publicly revealed?  Do they not deserve a formal apology?  Might they even deserve reparations of some sort?  Tham Yong (left) is elderly and frail now, but she still recalls the massacre clearly, and her life -- and the lives of the other widows and children -- was exceedingly harsh afterward.

Instead, Britain has sealed and destroyed many records. The Scots Guards hierarchy has staunchly defended the honour of their fighting force. The British and Malaysian investigators were both stalled before interviewing witnesses in the opposing countries.

I agree with the authors that no one came through this tragedy unscathed. At the time of the massacre, the Scots Guards soldiers were shockingly inexperienced. The leader of the patrol was a 19 year-old sergeant who had never seen combat before.  They were barely out of their teens, new to the tropics, spoke none of Malaya's languages and so depended upon local interpreters.  They were, to put it simply, greener than grass, and their later confessions prove their own psychological trauma.  Parallels between these young men and the equally young American GIs thrown into jungle guerrilla warfare in Vietnam are unavoidable.  We must concede that horrors against civilians do happen in wars, but even if no individual soldiers face court martial, the Governments who sent them should still have the dignity and decency to apologise, or at the very least, permit the truth to come to light.

Postscript: This appeared in The Malaysian Star, 9 September 2011:

KUALA LUMPUR: Family members of 24 unarmed Malaysian ethnic Chinese workers, allegedly shot dead by British troops in a massacre more than six decades ago, won a significant court battle in Britain that will give hope that the incident will be formally investigated, their lawyers said Thursday.
The British High court ruled on Aug 31 in favour of the family members for a review of a decision by the British government to refuse to investigate the massacre, in which the unarmed rubber plantation workers in Batang Kali, a remote town in Selangor state, were killed after being accused as terrorists trying to escape during the Malayan Emergency.
The court granted the judicial review as it deemed the case "raises arguable issues of importance", reported China's news agency Xinhua.
The lawyers said a full hearing would begin in early 2012.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Lovers and scholars of Russian literature will skewer me for this, but so be it. It may be heresy, but I truly believe that the terms great and monumental, when applied to Russian novels, refer to the weight of the book.  No, not in intellectual gravity but in kilograms.  (Or kilobytes, in the case of the e-book versions.)  There. I've said it.  So deport me to Siberia, or shoot me.

We all know the central plot of Anna Karenina:  Married woman meets handsome officer, falls head over hoop skirts in love, leaves her boring and officious husband, meets with societal approbation and dies in disgrace. It's a great story line, universally accessible, rich with drama and possibility. 

My gripe is with the snipes.  Tolstoy included two accounts of bird-hunting expeditions in the novel, each one spanning 2-3 chapters.  Fine, they are picturesque scenes of Levin and his hunting companions slogging through marshes at odd hours with their shot-guns and dogs, including detailed accounts of their bagged snipes, ducks, partridges and grouse.  

Levin is Tolstoy's mouthpiece for his own fancies, philosophies and spiritual struggles.  My complaint is not so much with Tolstoy as with his editor.  Anna Karenina becomes, in the end, an almost minor character in her own book, because he's cluttered it up with so much extraneous material.  If an editor had pared off much of the political philosophy, thoughts on peasants and agriculture, musings on religion and spirituality, and the damned duck hunts, there could well have been another few books -- and perfectly fine ones -- just from those trimmings.  Poor Anna nearly drowns in Tolstoy's 'kitchen sink' novel before she gets round to throwing herself under the wheels of the train.  

I find this especially frustrating, because Tolstoy's handling of the central theme -- love and marriage in 19th-century Russia -- to be so strong and insightful without all the clutter. If he felt he needed to provide readers with breaks from the intensity of Anna's drama, he needed only give us a bit of comic relief, as he did here, displaying the typical Russian husband's view of marital fidelity...
Stepan Arkadyevitch was a truthful man in his relations with himself. He was incapable of deceiving himself and persuading himself that he repented of his conduct. He could not at this date repent of the fact that he, a handsome, susceptible man of thirty-four, was not in love with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, and only a year younger than himself. All he repented of was that he had not succeeded better in hiding it from his wife. But he felt all the difficulty of his position and was sorry for his wife, his children, and himself. Possibly he might have managed to conceal his sins better from his wife if he had anticipated that the knowledge of them would have had such an effect on her. He had never clearly thought out the subject, but he had vaguely conceived that his wife must long ago have suspected him of being unfaithful to her, and shut her eyes to the fact. He had even supposed that she, a worn-out woman no longer young or good-looking, and in no way remarkable or interesting, merely a good mother, ought from a sense of fairness to take an indulgent view. It had turned out quite the other way.

Well, all right, maybe that was a bit of tragi-comic relief. Stepan Arkadyevitch mourns that his wife, Dolly, is less indulgent than he might hope when it comes to his dalliances, but what else has Dolly to do with her time? Her life exists within the small circle of her immediate family and a handful of lady friends of her own class. One day Dolly bubbles over with pride describing her children's accomplishments to Levin. Moments later, one of the daughters does something slightly naughty, and Dolly collapses into a black funk. Her confined life has robbed her of all perspective.

It was as if darkness had swooped down upon her life; she felt that these children of hers, that she was so proud of, were not merely most ordinary, but positively bad, ill-bred children, with coarse, brutal propensities—wicked children. She could not talk or think of anything else.

Tolstoy's rendering of Anna's infidelity is deep, rich, and timeless. Yes, her passionate affair with Vronsky created more of a scandal in her time than it would today, but the emotions of the participants -- unfaithful wife, lover, and cuckolded husband -- transcend time and place.

The position was one of misery for all three; and not one of them would have been equal to enduring this position for a single day, if it had not been for the expectation that it would change, that it was merely a temporary painful ordeal which would pass over. Alexey Alexandrovitch hoped that this passion would pass, as everything does pass, that everyone would forget about it, and his name would remain unsullied. Anna, on whom the position depended, and for whom it was more miserable than for anyone, endured it because she not merely hoped, but firmly believed, that it would all very soon be settled and come right. She had not the least idea what would settle the position, but she firmly believed that something would very soon turn up now. Vronsky, against his own will or wishes, followed her lead, hoped too that something, apart from his own action, would be sure to solve all difficulties.

And then, as today, love affairs born of great passion tend to go passionately wrong. Anna's ardour turns to poisonous jealousy, and Vronsky wonders how their love could have turned so toxic

These fits of jealousy, which of late had been more and more frequent with her, horrified him, and however much he tried to disguise the fact, made him feel cold to her, although he knew the cause of her jealousy was her love for him. How often he had told himself that her love was happiness; and now she loved him as a woman can love when love has outweighed for her all the good things of life—and he was much further from happiness than when he had followed her from Moscow. Then he had thought himself unhappy, but happiness was before him; now he felt that the best happiness was already left behind. She was utterly unlike what she had been when he first saw her. Both morally and physically she had changed for the worse. She had broadened out all over, and in her face at the time when she was speaking of the actress there was an evil expression of hatred that distorted it. He looked at her as a man looks at a faded flower he has gathered, with difficulty recognizing in it the beauty for which he picked and ruined it. 

With a story like this, who needs 3-chapter duck hunts? I felt the same frustration with The Brothers Karamazov, as Dostoyevsky also tended to wander off onto tangents. Is this simply a characteristic of the classic Russian novel? Should I just give it up and fast-forward to Nabokov, or can someone recommend one of the earlier novels that sticks -- more or less -- to a central plot?