Sunday, March 22, 2015

Asne Seierstad's One of Us:

This is an incredibly powerful book. It's long - over 530 pages - but utterly engrossing.

But for obvious reasons it's not a pleasant read. Anders Breivik was a monster, an embodiment of sheer evil. Seierstad spends a lot of time giving us a detailed psychological profile of an abused child growing into an emotionally immature youth and finally a self-obsessed, narcissistic adult. A bully incapable of sustaining friendships much less intimate relationships. Nobody really understood him, least of all himself.

Interestingly a psychologist employed by the Norwegian Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry correctly identified the toddler Breivik's vulnerability: 'The profoundly pathological relationship between Anders and his mother means early intervention is vital to prevent serious abnormality in the boy's development. Ideally he should be transferred to a stable foster home'. The psychologist was ignored by the local child welfare office. 

Interspersed throughout the chapters on Breivik's development are the life stories of some of the young men and women of the Young Labour Party who on 22 July 2011 tragically became his victims. 

Bano, the daughter of Kurd asylum seekers who struggled to make a life in Norway after fleeing Iraq, is an inspiration. As is Simon, widely regarded as a future political leader. These and other stories build incredible suspense. We know the ending but our sympathies are utterly engaged. The ultimate tragedy happens to individuals we love and care about deeply. It is profoundly moving.

Seierstad spends quite a bit of time on Breivik's bomb making process - how and from where he purchased the materials; the months of trial and error in the chemical processing and assembly; and his self-glorifying and deluded scribblings about his noble warrior mission in freeing Europe from the Islamic hordes.

And then there is the gritty detail as the fateful day unfolds. Horrible but fascinating as a dramatic narrative. 

We are in the hands of an assured and talented writer.

At every conceivable turn the police and relevant authorities were completely inept after the bombing outside the government buildings in the centre of Oslo, allowing Breivik to drive in dense traffic to the island where the Young Labour members were holding a camping weekend. Even though witnesses to the bombing immediately informed police HQ of the make, colour and licence number of Breivik's vehicle, the inexcusable bungling cost an hour at least.

And then it took these keystone replicas another half hour to figure out how best to get across to the island. By this time Breivik had killed 77 people, including 69 teenagers.

The trial process is covered in detail and, again, is fascinating. The verdict hinged on whether Breivik was judged a 'politically motivated aggressor', in other words a terrorist, or fundamentally insane. Expert opinion differed. It truly was a psychiatric danse macabre.

The final chapters cover the aftermath, particularly for the families. It is immensely sad. 

This book is an enormously satisfying and revelatory read. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reza Aslan's excellent 'No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam'.

If, like me, you want to know far more about Islam, this book is the one you should read. Reza Aslan is an Iran-born, American religious scholar of Islamic faith who wrote the 2013 mega-seller 'Zealot', a controversial book about the historical Jesus (my brief review is below*).  

No god but God is the story of the prophet Muhammad, his successors and the religion he foundered, from the very beginning right up until today. As a drama it truly is fodder for a thrilling TV miniseries. The thing about Aslan is he can write. It's a tale exceptionally well told.

Muhammad's original vision was one of equality, fairness, tolerance for other faiths and beliefs, and prior Arabian tribal traditions and conflicts. There is no doubt that Muhammad was an inspiring, charismatic and hugely influential figure, and a passionate reformer. A major source of his inspiration was Jesus.

Aslan summarises the views of a range of scholars and their different opinions and interpretations. He assess and critiques fairly. Being a well regarded scholar himself, he writes with authority.

He details the debates, the controversies and the evolution of Islam over the centuries, including its spread to Asia, Africa and other non-Arabic countries. The various visions and ideas of its leaders and theologians over the centuries are presented comprehensively yet clearly.

The chapters on Iran, India, Egypt and Islam's clash with colonialism are enlightening. He is also excellent on the Shia/Sunni divide and particularly Wahhabism, an 'uncompromisingly puritanical vision of Islam', and its patron Ibn Saud. This history is fascinating given today's iteration in ISIS. 

It was also good to be reminded of the drama of modern Iran from the ousting of the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1979 to the establishment of the first democratic Islamic Republic initially under Ayatollah Khomeini. The subsequent struggles for democracy in Islamic countries around the globe is a compelling narrative. 

Aslan is fiercely and rightly critical of the West, particularly imperialist Britain and now the US, and its heavy-handed interventions:

'The French went to great lengths to cultivate class divisions in Algeria, the Belgians promoted tribal factionalism in Rwanda, and the British fostered sectarian schisms in Iraq, all in a futile attempt to minimise nationalist tendencies and stymie calls for independence. No wonder, then, that when the colonialists were finally expelled from these manufactured states, they left behind not only economic and political turmoil, but deeply divided populations with little common ground on which to construct a national identity.'

Reza Aslan has written a highly readable, truly enlightening book. I highly recommend it.

*This NYT bestseller is absolutely brilliant. The author was born in Iran and is of Islamic faith. It's his ability to be detached and unsentimental that gives his account so much power. 
It's a fascinating, lucidly written story of a charismatic political activist in first century Palestine very much under Roman rule. This is history told with a thrilling narrative drive.
How did the world's most powerful religion emerge from these very ordinary, seemingly shambolic beginnings?
The final chapters give a riveting account of Paul of Tarsus' seemingly unorthodox theologising and his ongoing, visceral conflict with Peter and Jesus' brother James who stayed closer to traditional Jewish law and traditions.
I can't recommend this enough.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro's Exquisitely Good 'The Buried Giant'

I've read most of Ishiguro's novels and enjoyed them immensely. The films of the books have been excellent too.

This new one absolutely joins the parade. It's marvellous.

A major Ishiguro theme is buried evil, the havoc it has reeked, the potential it has to erupt again and the courage needed to face it. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro's fascination with paranormal evil and how integrated with quotidian reality it is, continues. Dragons, ogres, savage pixies and the monster of them all, Querig the she-dragon, populate the landscape and are an integral part of this folkloric tale. But they portend the inevitability and horror of war and the destruction of love, civility, compassion and innocence.

We are in a Tolkien world, with echoes of BeowulfDon Quixote and King Lear. Sir Gawain from King Arthur's round table makes an appearance too, but here he's straight out of Monty Python - an old John Cleese, outrageously tall, skin and bones, an old duffer, bat crazy, whose favourite phrase is 'how dare they!'

In fact there are a lot of old, malingering people in this book, including the two central characters Beatrice and Axl, who are absolutely delightful. Their love for each other is the central charm of the book. Like all the characters Ishiguro has them talking in a stilted, formal English. It's very theatrical and Elizabethan, often beautifully poetic with Shakespearean elegance. The Saxons and the Britons have been at war in the ex-Roman colony of Britannia but are now at peace, albeit a fragile one. It is guarded and cherished by the old and wise. Deep roots of hatred and vengeance lie buried - the Giant in the title - but threaten to break out at any time. 

Ironically it is the young who continue the hatred and relish the near prospect of renewed war and bloodshed. In his last novel, Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro had the young as innocent victims of the old. Here it's the reverse.

There are a few subplots running through the narrative, which are interesting in themselves, but the real power of this well told story is the journey Axl and Beatrice take, on foot, over a few days, up hill and down dale, to meet up with their lost son - who may or may not be real or alive. There is even a Name of the Rose moment when they visit a monastery full of mysterious, plotting monks. 

The ending is intensely moving and profound. 

(Some authors and reviewers have had a bit of a spat about this book - whether fantasy and literature can co-exist; whether its trash can of literary references and elaborate, unnatural dialogue undermines its seriousness, etc - but these people are best ignored. They can barely read.)