Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard

Over at his Bibliophobia blog, Alan KW Wong keeps a sharp eye on the publishing industry, and last week he spotted a very astute essay by Ron Charles in the Washington Post:
Do snippets of inflated praise on dust jackets make any difference to potential readers standing in a bookstore? Is anyone buying Benjamin Percy’s werewolf novel, Red Moon, because John Irving called it 'terrifying'? "Book blurbs are terrifying," Ron Charles suggests.  
I am appropriating the title of Charles' essay, 'Two thumbs up! (I hated it)' for this blog entry, because this
novel let me down with a crash, and I blame the blurbs.

It's a good question -- how do we choose the books we buy and read? Book reviews? Trusted friends' recommendations? What's available on the discount table? Amazon's "people who bought this also bought..." suggestions?  Serendipity?

Because I buy very few print books here in Malaysia, I rarely browse the shelves, so jacket blurbs have few opportunities to sink their nasty little claws into me. I think I read one glowing review of The Fates Will Find Their Way, maybe in the Guardian, or maybe in one of Flavorwire's lists of worthwhile books.  I bought it from an on-line bookseller who reaffirmed the glowing review by posting a stack of... yes, jacket blurbs. In fact, we can't even call them jacket blurbs: In addition to the ones on the front and back covers, there are seven full pages (yes, seven pages!) of blurbs. When I began this book, my expectations were in the stratosphere.

They'd sunk to a vague, hopeful hovering by the halfway point, and then I just dragged myself along to the conclusion out of courtesy.  Courtesy? Yes. This is Hannah Pittard's first novel, and it's not a bad book. It simply failed (by a wide margin) to live up to the hype.

I've gone back to look at the blurbs more closely.  They range from a line in the New York Times penned by a reviewer whose first novel was not yet released ("What emerges from the narration instead of facts are exquisite details that translate instantly into memory...") to a barely coherent pronouncement from ("The architecture of the narrative is cemented in the solipsism of the boys/men... As readers work their way through the novel, they might try guessing what could have happened to Nora, but the ending is a surprise.")  In other words, if I'd taken the time to analyse the blurbs objectively as Ron Charles recommends in his essay, I might have been scared away from this book.  Or better still, would have disregarded them entirely and approached the book with far more reasonable expectations.

At the beginning of the novel, 16 year-old Nora Lindell disappears.  The narrator is an unidentified boy in her nameless town. As the years pass, rumours circulate -- someone claims to have seen an older Nora at an airport in Arizona, someone else says she appeared in a newscast in Mumbai -- what does happen as the boys and girls in the town mature mixes with the conjecture about what may have happened to Nora.

The voice and the narration of The Fates Will Find Their Way reminded me constantly of The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, a book that I found magnificent.  It's an unfortunate comparison, though; this novel is a far cry from that one. The blurb on the front cover, from Time, makes the same association:  "A dreamlike cross between The Virgin Suicides and The Lovely Bones".  Dreamlike? In a publicist's dreams.

I offer sincere apologies to Hannah Pittard for an unkind review. It is unduly harsh, fuelled both by my disappointment that her book failed to live up to its glowing press and also that it constantly brought to mind another, far finer novel.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene

This is the novel with which I christened my grey tweed wingback reading chair. If I'd splurged on the bitters (wildly and inexplicably expensive here in Malaysia), I could have sipped a pink gin alongside Greene's characters. It was nonetheless the perfect marriage of book and chair. The Heart of the Matter is one of Anthony Burgess' 99 best novels, and  Modern Library picked it as one of their top 100. It's now near the top of my own list, and it's one of those books that bears re-reading every decade or so.  (Next time, I'll have bitters on hand for the occasion.)

Although Greene never specifically identifies the setting, it stands to reason that the story takes place in Sierra Leone, where he served with the British Intelligence Corps during WWII.  Loitering vultures, diamond-smuggling Syrians and laconic Africans addressing the Brits as "Sah" are no doubt memories dusted off and put to good use.

I adored this novel from the very first paragraph:
Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday and the Cathedral bell clanged for matins. On the other side of Bond street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark-blue gym smocks engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin-and-bitters.
I marvel at Greene's subtlety. One paragraph, and I was confident that I would come to despise Wilson.

The story's protagonist is police Major Henry Scobie. He's been in the colony for years and -- remarkably on both counts -- is content to stay there and has retained his reputation for  integrity, while others have succumbed to the endemic corruption.  Scobie's wife, Louise, however, is far from content, and when he is passed over for promotion to Commissioner, she takes it as a personal affront and humiliation. Going home is usually the most challenging part of Scobie's day.
People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person's habitual misery.
Just as his occasional mention of the vultures lurking about says volumes about the atmosphere in the west African town, Greene manages with startling economy to capture the depths of marital conflict.
"You don't love me." She spoke with calm. He knew that calm - it meant they had reached the quiet centre of the storm: always in this region at about this time they began to speak the truth at each other. The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being - it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.
Louise begs Scobie to send her to South Africa. She can't bear it there any more -- she has no friends and feels that everyone mocks her for her love of literature, with the exception of Wilson. Like Louise, Wilson loves poetry (though he keeps this secret well hidden), and shortly after meeting her, he concludes that he's in love with her. Louise pooh-poohs Wilson's attentions, brushing them aside as a boyish infatuation. Life may be wretched in the colony, but at some level, she deeply loves her Ticki (her pet name for her husband). This, the shallow Wilson cannot comprehend. Isn't love supposed to be joyful? It is in poems.
At the word books Wilson saw her mouth tighten just as a moment ago he had seen Scobie flinch at the name of Ticki, and for the first time he realized the pain inevitable in any human relationship - pain suffered and pain inflicted. How foolish one was to be afraid of loneliness.
Eventually, all other tactics to get the money to send Louise to South Africa having failed, Scobie resorts to asking Yusef, one of the two wheeling and dealing Syrians, for a loan. He opens the discussion by offering the businessman a drink. Yusef has a uniquely Arabic grace in maneuvering around what might be unpleasant topics.
"A little beer then, Major Scobie."
"The Prophet doesn't forbid it?"
"The Prophet had no experience of bottled beer or whisky, Major Scobie. We have to interpret his words in the modern light."
Having negotiated the loan, Scobie sees Louise off on the next southbound ship and goes home, eager for the one and only thing he so desperately wants:  peace.
It seemed to Scobie later that this was the ultimate border he had reached in happiness: being in darkness, alone, with the rain falling, without love or pity...
...Leaning back against the dressing-table, he tried to pray. The Lord's Prayer lay as dead on his tongue as a legal document: it wasn't his daily bread that he wanted but so much more. He wanted happiness for others and solitude and peace for himself.
Scobie's solitude is interrupted, however, by the arrival of a group of British shipwreck survivors, including Helen Rolt, who was carried into the clinic on a stretcher clutching her stamp album as a small child might do.  Married only recently, she was an early widow, her husband having gone down with the ship. When she is well enough to leave the clinic, Helen is installed in a Nissen hut not far from Scobie's house. What began as a charitable and neighbourly gesture on his part quickly flares into a torrid affair. He is consumed equally with guilt and love, desperately trying to keep the thing under wraps.

He and Helen do their best to be nonchalant at a dinner party at which the conversation turns to the suicide of a young policeman in a nearby town. Finding the young man's body and his final note to his father had disturbed Scobie greatly, and the glib banter at the dinner table is no less distressing. Helen, sensing his agitation, tries to change the subject but fails.
"Are you a Catholic, Mrs Rolt?" Fellowes asked. "Of course they take very strong views."
"No, I'm not a Catholic."
"But they do, don't they, Scobie?"
"We are taught," Scobie said, "that it's the unforgivable sin."
"But do you really, seriously, Major Scobie," Dr Sykes asked, "believe in Hell?"
"Oh yes, I do."
"In flames and torment?"
"Perhaps not quite that. They tell us it may be a permanent sense of loss."
"That sort of Hell wouldn't worry me!" Fellowes said.
"Perhaps you've never lost anything of any importance," Scobie said.
As Scobie is struggling to manage his love for Helen and his tortured conscience, Louise telegraphs him to say she is on her way back. Not long after her return, Scobie contrives to end his own life in such a way that it looks like a natural death, convincing himself that he has already done irreparable harm to Louise, Helen and God, and all three would be better off without him.

After Scobie's death, Wilson calls on Louise, who, like most others in the colony, have seen through his guise as an accountant and have recognised him as an intelligence agent. She has gained little respect for his espionage skills and less still for his professions of love.
"I had no idea that he was so ill."
"Your spying didn't help you there, did it?"
"That was my job," Wilson said, "and I love you."
"How glibly you use that word, Wilson."
"You don't believe me?"
"I don't believe in anybody who says love, love, love. It means self, self, self."
In one final, vicious attempt to win Louise's admiration and to discredit Scobie, Wilson reveals evidence that the death was not from natural causes.

Clutching the diary with her late husband's intentionally misleading entries (pointed out to her by the "loving" Wilson), Louise presents evidence of Scobie's mortal sin and betrayal to Father Rank, the priest. She begins by asking if he was aware of the other grave sin -- the affair with Helen. What follows is possibly one of the best portrayals of pastoral compassion in English literature.
"I expect you know about Mrs Rolt. Most people did."
"Poor woman."
"I don't see why."
"I'm sorry for anyone happy and ignorant who gets mixed up in that way with one of us."
"He was a bad Catholic."
"That's the silliest phrase in common use," Father Rank said.
"And at the end this - horror. He must have known that he was damning himself."
"Yes, he knew that all right. He never had any trust in mercy - except for other people."
"It's no good even praying..."
Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, "For goodness' sake, Mrs Scobie, don't imagine you - or I - know a thing about God's mercy."
"The Church says ..."
"I know what the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn't know what goes on in a single human heart."

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, by Peter Hopkirk

Years ago, I read another of Peter Hopkirk's books -- Trespassers on the Roof of the World -- about various covert and overt, successful and failed attempts to penetrate Tibet in the 19th century. It read like a rollicking adventure novel, so when I spotted The Great Game, I grabbed it, and it didn't disappoint. Once again, I was immersed in an espionage saga in an exotic setting, reading about an episode in history that was entirely new to me.  (At the same time, it was distressingly familiar:  will we ever learn that Afghanistan is best left to the Afghans?)

The Great Game is the name that one of the English 'players' gave to the contest between Russia and England to control central Asia during the 19th century.  They were not squabbling over this forbidding landscape (full of equally forbidding people) because they wanted natural resources hidden there; this was long before the era of petro-colonialism. Russia was keen both to acquire a deep buffer zone around her borders and also to gain access to as many waterways as possible. England wanted to protect her prize colony, India. The area on the map was caught in the middle of these desires as both sides made numerous incursions, trying -- sometimes with brief success and often with catastrophic, bloody failure -- to seize control of slippery and fierce emirs and sultans and their people.

As the book opens, two Englishmen are being dragged out of a stinking pit in which the Emir of Bokhara has imprisoned them. They are of no further use to him, and he has ordered their beheading. Thus, the man who gave a name to this geographical chessgame also gave his life for it.
Stoddart and Conolly were paying the price of engaging in a highly dangerous game -- the Great Game, as it became known to those who risked their necks playing it. Ironically, it was Conolly himself who had first coined the phrase, although it was Kipling who was to immortalise it many years later in his novel Kim.
The uncooperative natives are only half the problem when it comes to invading this part of the world. The geography and weather are just as brutal. The Germans most recently met demise trying to press eastward into Russia and central Asia. Hopkirk reminds us of an earlier botched invasion.
In the Baltic town of Vilnius, through which Napoleon's troops marched to their doom in the summer of 1812, there stands today a simple monument bearing two plaques. Together they tell the whole story. On the side with its back towards Moscow is written: "Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way in 1812 with 400,000 men." On the other side are the words: "Napoleon Bonaparte passed this way in 1812 with 9,000 men."
Following Napoleon's rout, the English nursed a short-lived passion for Russia, and more specifically a fascination for the Cossacks, who had repelled their mutual arch-enemy. This romance, like so many, was based on airy notions and soon crumbled. It was just the first of many changes of heart to sway the English populace and parliament during the playing of the Great Game.
It was on his return to London that Wilson drew official wrath upon himself by launching a one-man campaign against the Russians, Britain's allies, and in the eyes of most people the saviours of Europe. He began by demolishing romantic notions about the chivalry of the Russian soldier, especially those darlings of press and public, the Cossacks. The atrocities and cruelties perpetrated by them against their French captives, he alleged, were horrifying by the accepted standards of European armies. Large numbers of defenceless prisoners were buried alive, while others were lined up and clubbed to death by peasants armed with sticks and flails. While awaiting their fate, they were invariably robbed of their clothes and kept standing naked in the snow. The Russian women, he claimed, were especially barbaric towards those Frenchmen unfortunate enough to fall into their hands.
The English saw the territory which we now call Afghanistan as a critical buffer zone to protect India from a Russian incursion. At the time, however, there was no cohesive Afghanistan, just an assortment of fiefdoms ruled by singularly disagreeable warlords. Conolly (whose execution began the book) saw that a united Afghanistan would suit the British needs quite nicely, thus beginning a long attempt at puppet-mastery with elusive, combative and untrustworthy puppets.
"If the Afghans, as a nation, were determined to resist the invaders," he declared, "the difficulties of the march would be rendered well nigh insurmountable." They would fight to the last drop of blood, harassing the Russian columns incessantly from their mountain strongholds, destroying food supplies and cutting off the invader's lines of communication and retreat. If, however, the Afghans were to remain divided, as they then were, the Russians would be able to play one faction off against another with promises or other inducements. "Singly," Conolly wrote, "the chief of a small state could not offer effectual opposition to a European invader, and it would be easy to gain him by encouraging his ambitions against his rivals at home, or doubly to profit by it, by directing it on India." It was very much in Britain's interest therefore that Afghanistan be reunited under one strong and central ruler in Kabul.
The Afghan chief whose claim to the throne should be supported, Conolly urged his superiors, was Kamran Shah of Herat. While his unsavoury character might be regretted, he and Britain shared one vital interest --that Herat, "the Granary of Central Asia", should not fall into the hands of either the Persians, who had a long-standing claim to it, or the Russians.
As with so many of the recent attempts to manipulate the government of distant and very foreign nations, a few sensible people questioned its advisability, asking things like, "After we go in and wreak havoc with the status quo, what then?" Not everyone in London was in favour of meddling in Afghanistan.
To occupy Afghanistan would not only be prohibitively expensive, and leave India's other frontiers ill-guarded, but it would also push the Persians even further into the welcoming arms of the Russians. The Duke of Wellington for one was strongly against it, warning that where the military successes ended the political difficulties would begin.
Alexander Burnes, a Scottish Great Game player, had the advantage of first-hand knowledge of the region, and he also had serious doubts about the king-making efforts in Afghanistan. For one thing, he questioned whether the English choice of rulers was the best one.
The Baluchi warned him that while the British might succeed in placing Shujah on the throne, they would never carry the Afghan people with them, and would therefore fail in the end. The British, he declared, had embarked on an undertaking "of vast magnitude and difficult accomplishment". Instead of trusting the Afghan nation and Dost Mohammed, the British had "cast them aside and inundated the country with foreign troops". Shujah, he insisted, was unpopular among his fellow Afghans, and the British would be wise to point out to him his errors "if the fault originated with him, and alter them if they sprang from ourselves".
The hawks who were intent on their mission, however, were not interested in intelligence data that did not support their aims. Macnaghten was a virulent Russophobe keen to bring Afghanistan into line, and Burnes' warning was as welcome to him as the advice against invading Iraq was to Bush's advisors, who also predicted rapturous welcomes.
That was the last thing that Macnaghten wanted to hear, for he had repeatedly assured Lord Auckland that Shujah's return would be rapturously welcomed by the Afghans.
Burnes insisted that diplomacy was the answer. The following line amused me, because yes, the khans were unreliable, of course, but during the years of the Great Game, the ostensibly civilised English and Russians defaulted on one treaty after the next. Politics may or may not make for strange bedfellows, but it certainly makes unreliable ones!
Ultimately, Burnes insisted, Russia could only be restrained in Central Asia through London putting strong pressure on St Petersburg, and not by means of vague alliances with capricious and treacherous khans.
Meanwhile, the hawks had got their way, had propped up Shujah on the Afghan throne and then moved into Kabul to keep him there. To no one's surprise but their own, this did not turn out well.  In the end, a bloodbath ensued.
Ever since their arrival in Kabul two years earlier, the British had been making themselves thoroughly at home there. Kabul's exotic situation and invigorating climate had attracted the wives, and even the children, of British and Indian troops up from the hot and dusty plains of Hindustan. Every kind of entertainment was laid on, from cricket to concerts, steeplechasing to skating, with some of the Afghan upper classes joining in the fun. Much of what went on, particularly the womanising and drinking, was to cause great offence to the Muslim authorities and the devout majority.
There were plenty of reasons for this antagonism towards the British and Shah Shujah. For one thing the presence of so many troops had hit the pockets of ordinary Afghans. Because of the increased demand for foodstuffs and other essentials, prices in the bazaar had soared, while taxes had risen sharply to pay for Shujah's new administration, not to mention his lavish personal lifestyle. Moreover, the British showed no signs of leaving, despite earlier assurances. It looked more and more as though the occupation would be permanent, as indeed some of the British were beginning to think it would have to be if Shujah was to survive. Then there was the growing anger, especially in Kabul, over the pursuit and seduction of local women by the troops, particularly the officers.  Strong protests were made, but these were ignored.
As I think of the American invasions of Vietnam (with the French failure so fresh in memory), of Iraq and Afghanistan (in the footsteps of the Russian debacle), and of every other government who decides to invade a country on the other side of the world about which it knows little,  I read Hopkirk's account of this fiasco and wonder, Have we ever learned anything from history, and will we ever? Only one man, a doctor, survived the Kabul massacre and made it back to India alive (barely) to tell the story.
The dreadful tidings borne by Dr Brydon -- the Messenger of Death, as he was to become known -- reached Lord Auckland, the retiring Governor-General, in Calcutta, a fortnight later. The shock, his sister Emily noted, was to age him by ten years. Things had gone wrong so terribly fast. Only a few weeks earlier Sir William Macnaghten had written from Kabul assuring him that everything was firmly under control. And now his entire policy in Central Asia was in ruins. Far from establishing a friendly rule in Afghanistan to buttress India against Russian encroachments, it had led instead to one of the worst disasters ever to overtake a British army. A mob of mere heathen savages, armed with home-made weapons, had succeeded in routing the greatest power on earth. It was a devastating blow to British pride and prestige.
The British were never entirely sure what the Russians' plans or goals might have been. The latter went through periods of enormous expansion, alternately admitting and denying interest in India and other chunks of neighbouring territory. What one diplomat said, another source contradicted.
The opportunity for some plain talking with the Russians arose shortly afterwards when Lord Clarendon, the British Foreign Secretary, met his opposite number, Prince Gorchakov, at Heidelberg. Clarendon enquired bluntly, of Gorchakov whether Russia's recent Asiatic conquests, which went so far beyond what he himself had spelt out in his celebrated memorandum, had been ordered by Tsar Alexander, or were the result of commanders on the spot exceeding their instructions. It was an embarrassing question, and it required an answer.
Gorchakov chose to blame the soldiers, explaining that they thereby hoped to win distinction for themselves. Even now, though, the British were probably no nearer the truth than before, or than scholars are to this day.
And yet, especially after their disaster in Afghanistan, the English were keen to find a diplomatic route to securing India. Once again, the focus returned to Afghanistan as a designated buffer.  The Russians said they had no interest in it, but how reliable might that be?
The British had by now become used to such assurances and promises, and to seeing them broken. Pursuing Lawrence's expedient of trying to put a fixed limit on further Russian advances, Clarendon therefore proposed to Gorchakov that their two governments should establish, not so much spheres of influence in Asia, but a permanent neutral zone between their two expanding empires there. The Russian immediately suggested that Afghanistan would serve this purpose, his own government having no interest of any kind in it.
There were always diplomats who assured the British that Russia had no intention of moving into India. There were also consistent rumbles that hinted at quite the opposite.
The Indian Mutiny, Terentiev maintained, had only failed because the Indians lacked a proper plan and outside support. They continued to suffer from British misrule and exploitation. "Sick to death," Terentiev went on, "the natives are now waiting for a physician from the north." Given such assistance, they had every chance of starting a conflagration which would spread throughout India, and thus enable them to throw off the British yoke.
The Russians moved eastward, conquering Turcoman territory. In this, they proved more successful than the British attempt to subdue the Afghans, largely because they simply met and exceeded the Turcomans' own brutality.
For three days, he said, Skobelev had allowed his troops, many of whom were drunk, to rape, plunder and slaughter. In justification for this afterwards, the general declared: "I hold it as a principle that the duration of peace is in direct proportion to the slaughter you inflict upon the enemy. The harder you hit them, the longer they remain quiet." It was, he claimed, a far more effective way of pacifying troublesome neighbours than the British method, employed by Roberts at Kabul, of publicly hanging the ringleaders, since that merely engendered hatred and not fear. Certainly the Turcomans, who for nearly two centuries had plundered Russian caravans, attacked their frontier posts and carried off the Tsar's subjects into slavery, were never to give trouble again.
The Russians began to build railways through central Asia, giving the British a new round of anxiety attacks.
They assured the English that this was only to facilitate trade, and that Russia had no plans to colonise the emirates of present-day Uzbekistan. Mmhmm.
In Samarkand, where the railway then ended, he found no such pretence of independence, although the Russians had repeatedly declared their intention of returning the city and its fertile lands to the Emir of Bokhara, from whom they had seized it. "It is unnecessary to say", Curzon wrote, "that there was never the slightest intention of carrying out such an engagement." Only a Russian diplomat, he added sardonically, could have given such an undertaking, while only a British one would have believed him.
Meanwhile, Russia had seized Kashgar and other territory from the Chinese.  Eventually, she collided with the Japanese in a battle for eastern Asia. The Russo-Japanese war ended with a peace treaty (negotiated in New Hampshire, of all places) and with mixed results.  The treaty ended one war, but left the Japanese feeling empowered to pursue its 'Asia for Asians' brand of colonialism in the not too distant future, challenging non-Asian powers who got in the way.
St Petersburg was not alone in wishing to end hostilities in the Far East. Despite their spectacular victories, the Japanese knew that they could not win a long drawn-out war against the Russian colossus, with its inexhaustible manpower. Already the war was imposing a critical strain on their resources which could not be sustained indefinitely. Both governments were therefore grateful when the United States offered to act as mediator between them. As a result, on September 5, 1905, a peace treaty was signed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, between the warring powers. It effectively brought to an end Tsarist Russia's forward policy in Asia. Under its terms both countries agreed to evacuate Manchuria, which was restored to Chinese rule.
For their part, the Japanese were persuaded to drop their earlier demands for huge indemnities, while, apart from the southern half of Sakhalin Island which went to Japan, the Russians were not required to surrender any of their sovereign territory. Nevertheless St Petersburg had lost virtually everything it had gained in the region during ten years of vigorous military and diplomatic endeavour. The war, moreover, had exploded forever the myth of the white man's superiority over Asiatic peoples.
Hopkirk recounts in this book one of the episodes from Trespassers on the Roof of the World, in which the British are convinced that the Russians have appropriated Tibet as a military outpost and subsequently invade it themselves. They inflict horrendous carnage on the Tibetans defending their sacred capital and -- would you believe? -- find no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
Colonel Francis Younghusband had ridden unopposed into Lhasa at the head of a small army. However, if he and Lord Curzon, the Viceroy, had expected to find damning evidence of Russian intrigue there they were to be disappointed. Not only were there no arsenals of Russian weapons, no political advisers, no drill sergeants, but there was also no sign of any treaty of friendship between Tsar Nicholas and the Dalai Lama.
But lo and behold, a new distraction arises, and suddenly Russia might not be the greatest potential threat any more. Now, indeed, she may even be a valuable ally. Romances and political alliances -- mutable, mercurial, frangible. No relationship can be solid when it's driven by self-interest and desire to control.  Some of us discover this as individuals, but governments seem eternally blind to it.
The old fear of Russia was at last waning in the face of a new spectre -- that of an aggressively expansionist Germany. Indeed, as Germany's ambitions in Asia began to assume threatening aspects, Russia was already being seen by some as a potential ally against this new power. What had to be avoided at all costs was anything which might drive St Petersburg into the arms of the Germans.
The Great Game involved hair-raising treks across mountain passes, brutal murders, individual courage and scenery straight out of children's adventure books. It's a hugely informative piece of history, but it makes for a page-turning read, many thanks to Peter Hopkirk.

Friday, May 17, 2013


I love coming across words or phrases in other languages which neatly express things which English can only describe more clumsily.

Life would be so much more verbose if we didn't have l'esprit d'escalier, gem├╝tlichkeit or in vino veritas.

Now Japanese has given us a single word for this phenomenon so common to bibliophiles around the world. One reader commented, "I don't know whether I feel better or worse that there's a word for it."  Well, yes -- there is the aspect of compulsive consumerism, of buying more than one needs -- but I believe that most people at risk of a tsundoku tsunami in their own homes do eventually read most of the books. And in the meantime, tsundoku gives us comfort, hope and fortitude. If we soldier on through our work and chores, we can rest easy knowing that we have plenty of good books on hand.