Saturday, July 07, 2007

Notable Reviews

A very long and pretty good review in the new NYT Book Review of Gunter Grass's just translated and very controversial memoir Peeling the Onion. John Irving it turns out is a very close friend of Grass and the review itself is not only a valiant defence but also an excellent overview of the political controversy surrounding the book. He has some nice words for Marcel Reich-Ranicki ("a senile tyrant") and Christopher Hitchens ("craven", "fatuous", "egregious"). Hitchens's column about Grass, absolutely awful I must say, here. Hitchens calls him, "something of a bigmouth and a fraud, and also something of a hypocrite" and also "a bloody fool." By the way, the picture on the cover is really good...

Another article in the same book review discusses the "four humours" theory of human personality and human health. It might be wrongheaded theory but I feel there is certainly some kind of a character disposition, parallel to the four types suggested by Hippocrates and Galen. Melancholia in particular is specially interesting in the context of history of art.

Also in the Guardian, some pessimistic wisdom about the current state of the world from the world's leading historian Eric Hobsbawm. I have read The Age of Extremes, his awe-inspiring and profoundly pessimistic and dispiriting history of the twentieth century and recommend it very highly. I have always wanted to read his other books.

15 comments:

Anu said...

Grass carries a guilt, and by doing so he sets himself apart from the bulk of war-generation Germans. I once met a nice German man on a flight from Africa to Europe. I have met nice (Germans) before, but they never told me what this German man on the flight told me: the silence of the Germans about the holocaust, and about the jews they killed, is not so much a silence of remorse or regret. It is as much a silence of approval. The silence of willing acquiescence. I was terrified to hear that. But not in the least bit surprised. Afterall, it takes more than a night's drunkenness to install death camps.

Alok said...

Yes it is true but for every silent German there have been vocal intellectuals, writers, filmmakers and historians who have always called for taking collective responsibility of what happened and resisted attempts to minimize or trivialize the German crime. Of course all these big words like guilt, responsibility are just that --words, but still Germans have done what many other nations (like the Turks for example) have not. And so they deserve our admiration.

Anu said...

Yes, but I was talking about the bulk of common people. Sure they are better off than the Turks. But Turks are not a reference line here. For long the germans maintained (and still do) this baffling excuse of being in dark about Hitler's gas chambers and concentration camps, even while living in the same neighborhoods and cities. This is the silence I am talking about. There are few chinks here and there of course, through the novels and films you mention. But those are exceptional cases. Still, right, much better than Turkey.

Alok said...

Actually there is a lot of debate on this topic in Germany itself. Every once in a while on the pretext of some book, essay or something the debate gets started with renewed ferver. Much of it is extremely fascinating.

There can never be enough but on the whole I think Germany can be counted as a model for dispensing justice for war crimes, paying reparations and renouncing the territorial, acquisitive and militaristic worldviews comprehensibly.

this is a wonderful encomium... from here


The Germany in which this film was produced, in the early years of the twenty-first century, is one of the most free and civilized countries on earth. In this Germany, human rights and civil liberties are today more jealously and effectively protected than (it pains me to say) in traditional homelands of liberty such as Britain and the United States. In this good land, the professionalism of its historians, the investigative skills of its journalists, the seriousness of its parliamentarians, the generosity of its funders, the idealism of its priests and moralists, the creative genius of its writers, and, yes, the brilliance of its filmmakers have all combined to cement in the world's imagination the most indelible association of Germany with evil. Yet without these efforts, Germany would never have become such a good land. In all the annals of human culture, has there ever been a more paradoxical achievement?

Anu said...

Yes, true. And no NYT encomiums are needed to certify the free, fair, creative, and efficient land Germany is today--Just as it was until the 1930s; an ideal place to be born in, to live in, to write books in, to do business in, to think free in. The land of an almost preternatual creative stamina. I know all that to be true. And I have a special affinity with the place. But that's besides the point. The story I am saying and the story you are saying are not mutually exclusive.

Szerelem said...

I was in Munich recently and it was interestin because the whole city had been built up from scratch after WWII (of course to resembe what it looked like before the war, and in that sense its very different from Berlin) and so strangely enough the city centre gives you this feeling that the war never took place. There is no rememberance of it at all.
I was talking to a girl from the city and she said there is still the tenency to want to overlook that period and not want to believe that it happened...the acceptance varies within germany.

I went down to Dachau as well - immensely depressing, but also very educational. I didnt know how much pressure and how much time it took before the memorial was allowed to be set up there. In fact most of the camp is still used by the german armed forces.

Similarly, in Vienna, a Jewish memorial was established only in 2001 - and is still controversial. Another point I noted was the influx of Turkish immigrants (everywhere there are Turks!) in both the countries and how much vicious rhetoric comes out on that subject (like the recent case of the mosque in Cologne). And its scary in that they have been down a smiliar path before.

As for Turkey and the Armenian genocide - sigh, I think it will take a very long time still. Part of it has to do with the very basis of how Turkey was formed as country and the kind of brain washed education that most Turks recieve. In that climate its astoundin that people, very brave people, actually dare to speak the truth about what happened. Of course with nationalist asshats running wild there are obscene tragedies like Hrant Dinks murder which only puts a brake on any progress that has been made. have been meaning to write about some of these issues...perhaps I should.

Alok said...

Recently I have read a lot about the postwar german literature and intellectual history. And one thing one has to admit that in the intellectual class at least there is no silence, they may take nationalist sides or claim that Germans had had enough of moral browbeating but they will never keep quiet. They are always struggling with their past. Germans even have a word for it - Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The debate surrounding the holocaust relativization (historikerstriet), W. G. Sebald's lectures about Dresden firebombings, the anti-German book by Daniel Goldhagen and eqaully controversial books by Gunter Grass, Martin Walser, and many others too, they all show how ready the Germans are to listen and think about it. The intellectual culture and the level of public debate in Germany is far higher than in other European countries or in England-America.

I don't know if there was any resistance for a holocaust memorial in Munich. In fact I read somewhere that Berlin will soon have the world's largest holocaust memorial, even bigger than the ones in Israel and Washington DC.

The case of Austrians is different. First they played victim when they had in fact embraced and celebrated Anschluss. They also supplied most of the Cadre of the SS. The German anti-semtism was also a predominantly austrian phenomena and was much more vicious there than it was in Germany.

And now they are intent on turning their country into a tourist theme park by rushing all their dark history under the carpet. But at least they have an incredible capacity to digest abuse and self-criticism, unlke say Turkey. I can't even imagine what would have happened to Thomas Bernhard or Elfriede Jelinek in any other country. "Denigrating Austrian-ness"... Ha! It is shameful that such laws are still there in a so-called "modern" 21st century country like Turkey and it is based on such a shameless and cowardly denial of the past.

Anu said...

Dear Alok,

A few films and novels don't give the true lay of a land. And a few visible intellectuals don't make a citizenry. To discover truth first-hand, one needs to talk to real people, walk to real places. Books and films are not always the ultimate sourcebook of life. This coming from a person who reads six books a week should mean something. Judging by movies, you'd think Paul Rusesabagina is the great hero of Rwanda. But that's miles away from the truth, which I learnt only by being in Rwanda.

Alok said...

I have got lots of worldtravellers on the blog :)

Me, a poor apartment dweller. My Germany exists only in the neighbourhood library. :)

Anu said...

:) Are you a student? Where do you live? By the way, I spent almost all my life in Bihar, and far further afield than the capital city.

Alok said...

Nope, I am an office-goer. (Not much work today. That's why I am able to write long replies to comments!) Currently in New York, have been in the US for the past couple of years, but should be back in India in a few months.

Okay so you've been to Bihar too... Bihar, Rwanda, Africa I see some pattern there... lots of poor people. Must be some meaningful work.

Anu said...

I haven't "been" to Bihar. I was born and brought up there--spent the biggest chunk of life there. So in a way, yes, been there. Now in Washington, DC.

Travel to Rwanda was on work, yes. Will you go back and live in Bihar?

Alok said...

I will probably be back in Bangalore. Still in planning stage...

Hmmm. So many people from Bihar!

Szerelem said...

hmmmm I agree with you about the intellectual class in Austria - germany. But I agree with Anu too.

Turkey is a strange case quite honestly. And I dont even know if the broad, sweeping generalisations, even in the case of calling it modern are apt at all. In all honesty there is a lot of debate within the Turkish media - even on the Armenian issue, (which was surprising as its one of only two issues (the other: being critical of Ataturk) that is still not that openly debated).
There are technical issues as well....a lot of the Ottoman documentation of that time hasnt been studied at all - one of the reasons being the adoption of the latin script and the change turkish has gone through (The turkish spoken even 30 years back would be incomprehensible to most Turks today). Also of course the complete break with the past that Turkey underwent when the republic was formed. And while the genocide issue was always around it was only when Armenia was formed from the remnants of the USSR that Turkey had to start comin to terms with that part of its hostory - something that will take some time still.
I think the move by Erdogan to open the Ottoman archives to scholars was a positive one and I do believe it is an academic issue. Plus the political climate at that time was very fragmented and there was a lot of Armenian militant activity as well, which just makes the issue more complicated and Turkey even more adamant to admit that it was not genocide.
Plus Armenias territorial claims on Turkish lands and the demands for compensation dont help their cause either.

Alok said...

I have not read much on the history and politcs of Turkey. I recently saw a documentary on the armenian genocide which was extremely critical of Turkey. There were interviews of Academics, historians, including one who is the president of the official national historical association, with diplomats, ambassadors all denying, prevaricating, quibbling over meanings and semantics of words... it was all very infuriating. With all that the murder of that Writer and the persecution of Orhan Pamuk. It was from this background that I mentioned Turkey in the comment.

Turkey has been in news recently regarding its entry into the EU and specualtion regarding its relationship with the radical islamic movements. Haven't really followed it in any detail but from the surface it doesn't look very good.