Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Middle Stage's Best Books of 2008 – Non-Fiction

The Middle Stage wishes itself, (why not? good cheer begins at home) and all its readers, a very happy New Year, rich with books, talk, companionship, love, food, exercise, travel, and plenty of sleep. Links at the end of some paragraphs lead to longer pieces on the books cited. A separate survey of the best fiction of 2008 is here. I hope you will excuse the great length of these two essays they are meant to be read at leisure.

Political dissidents rarely have the doors of power opened for them, and when this does happen, they often find themselves swept away or compromised by the pressures of practical politics, of action rather than reaction. One man – also a man of letters – who has made a success both of dissidence against the might of a totalitarian state and then of political office is the Czech writer Vaclav Havel, who came to power in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution in 1989. To The Castle And Back (Portobello in the UK, Alfred A. Knopf in the USA), Havel’s memoir of his fourteen years (1989-2003) in Prague Castle, is among the three or four most satisfying political autobiographies I have ever read. Havel not only describes how political life is a mix of the profound and the banal, of the thrust of policy and the conformity of protocol, but dramatises it by mixing long, thoughtful answers to questions from an interviewer, Karel Hvizdala, with his own notes, memos to Castle staff, and diary entries from his years in office. This makes for a highly appealing structure: here the President can be heard meditating on the relationship of our actions to the world (“We should, after all, do everything seriously, as though the future of the world depended on it, and, as a matter of fact, in some ways it does”); there he is found arriving to the conclusion that “We need a longer hose for watering”, or asking “In the closet where the vacuum cleaner is kept, there also lives a bat. How to get rid of it?” Havel’s place in history, grand themes, fidelity to language, powers of self-scrutiny, and distinctive organization of his material make for a work that may come to be seen as a classic of political literature. Longer essay here.
The theme of the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker’s book Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate (Random House India) might be said to be the one implicit in Havel’s: that is, “the dilemma faced by men of goodwill who acquire power and responsibility is remorseless”. This is why, although Crocker’s work, written only a few months after Nehru’s death in 1964, is highly critical of its subject on a number of counts – in particular economics, foreign policy, and the delegation of power – it takes a realistic and holistic view of Nehru’s contribution to Indian life, and leaves us finally with a sense of admiration for Nehru’s enormous intelligence, ideational power, energy, and discipline. Crocker’s unexpected but prescient conclusion, from the vantage point of 1964, that “Nehru’s rule will leave some mark on India, but not as much as is expected” has proved to be right on the mark. Both anecdotal and analytical, Crocker’s beautifully measured and composed account seemed to me a model of political biography.
Steve Coll’s brilliant and complex The Bin Ladens (Allen Lane) was simultaneously the biography of the world’s most feared terrorist and the story of the great business empire founded by his father. Most of us only know Osama Bin Laden the rootless holy warrior, spewing hatred against the West, America, modernity, and secularization, but his positions have not always been so consistent. He was the son – one of 54 children from several wives – of one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest business scions, Mohammed Bin Laden, and in his youth he worked as a junior executive alongside his brothers and cousins in the family construction firm. Tracing the radicalization of the black sheep of the Bin Laden family against the expanding range and influence of the Bin Laden business group in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties, Coll, formerly of The Washington Post and now at The New Yorker, brings together the many strands and leanings of a remarkable family, and can in fact be read as a Tolstoyan exploration of what Coll calls “the universal grammar of families”. The long section devoted to Salem Bin Laden, Osama’s gregarious, westernized, pleasure-loving, high-living eldest brother, transported me totally into the world of this man. A longer essay on the book here, and here is Coll's piece "Young Osama".

Some of the best works of Indian non-fiction in 2008 can be arranged neatly into pairs. All Indians now know that the Naxalite insurgency presents a serious threat to the stability of the Indian state, but beyond this our comprehension of the world and the motivations of the Naxals is shadowy. Indeed, “Naxalite” has become a convenient banner under which tendentious arrests and gross human-rights abuses are conducted; it would seem that any Indian citizen is potentially a Naxal. The journalist Sudeep Chakravarti’s Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country (Penguin Viking) travels through the desperately poor and backward regions of Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Nepal to tell us the tragic story of the rebels, the Indian state, and the people caught in between. Chakravarti iconoclastically mixes travelogue, interviews, reportage and analysis, quoting here from a Maoist document, there from a taped exchange between police officers, and ferreting out both state apathy and revolutionary excess with an unflinching and often mordant gaze (longer essay here).
And Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night (Random House India) does for Kashmir what Chakravarti does for the Naxal heartland, showing us a land and its people that has suffered both the negligent eye and the bruising fist of the Indian state far more than it has partaken of its privileges and freedoms. Peer’s book is both reportage and memoir: he recalls how the Kashmiri resistance spiralled around him as he himself reached adulthood in the late eighties, and then, having become a reporter for a periodical in New Delhi, he travels through Kashmir in the early years of the new century, sympathetically logging testimonies and bearing witness. There is a heartfelt poetry in Peer’s book to go with the gloomy prose of machine guns, arrests, and curfews, such as in his plangent description of Srinagar as a city of absences. Longer essay here.
The historian Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians (HarperCollins in India, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press in the USA) was an fascinating account of the history of Indians in America, from the curious and often socially marginal mix of farm labourers, students, and political activists of the early twentieth century to the mass of economically, academically, and politically influential diaspora in America today. Among the best sections of the book is a passage on the Ghadr party, a formation of Indian nationalists and revolutionaries in early twentieth-century America (longer essay here).
Anand Teltumbde’s blistering j’accuse Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop (Navayana), which takes its title from the poem "Strange Fruit" written by Abel Meeropol in 1939, was a disturbing study of the facts and the larger meanings of the heinous massacre of four members of a Dalit family in Khairlanji village in eastern Maharashtra in 2006. Indeed, Teltumbde's book might also have been called The Other Indians for what it showed us about the persistence of caste prejudice at the level of both state and society. and about the changing dynamics of power within caste groups in Indian today. For Teltumbde, Khairlanji is an atrocity so chilling that it “transcends the context of space and time and interrogates our claim to be humans. It is a mirror that shows us for what we are...It should not be viewed as a mere 'caste issue' to be dealt with by Dalits alone."
The impact of the moving image on India in the last century has been immense, and the magisterial essays of Chidananda Das Gupta’s Seeing Is Believing (Penguin Viking) made for what must be one of the most fulfilling books ever written on Indian cinema. Das Gupta argues that, although film originated in the West and was associated there with the march of science, its transplantation in the early twentieth century to a pre-industrial society heavily invested in faith and in myth instantly made it a very different thing in India. To this day Indian films, under their glitzy surfaces, draw upon the currents and structures of Indian religiosity: “the currents of traditional belief are kept alive beneath a modern exterior”. Whether analysing the phenomenon of Indian movie stars leveraging their fictive personae to become political heavyweights, thinking about the place of the song as “the transcendental element in the language of popular cinema”, or making a distinction between folk culture and pop culture, the range and shrewedness of his Das Gupta’s linkages is enormously satisfying. Longer essay here.
Paul Ginsborg’s Democracy: Crisis and Renewal (Profile) synthesised a huge amount of old and new scholarship to arrive at sophisticated insights into the quality of and possibilities for world democracy today. Ginsborg’s book is all the more attractive because it is set up as a debate between John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, two of the most demanding influential theorisers and critics of democracy. Whether on the subject of how capitalism and consumerism have eroded the public sphere or the role of the family as a school for a thriving democracy, Ginsborg offers us much to think about as we enter our own election year and ponder, in a winter of fear and discontent, how to reform and refine our own democracy. After reading this book I also found much of interest in Ginsborg’s older book The Politics of Everyday Life. Longer essay here.
The Lebanese novelist and historian Amin Maalouf is the author of several excellent books, including On Identity, which I bought very profitably for one pound in a damaged-books store in 2001 and which taught me – and I daresay would have something to offer to most Indians – many useful things about how to think about my relationship to family, society, history, and nation. Maalouf’s new book, Origins (Picador in the UK, Farrar Straus Giroux in the USA), was a very unusual reconstruction, built almost entirely on the leads provided by a trunk of old letters, of the life of his grandfather, an immense, iconoclastic teacher and scholar named Botros, in a small village in Lebanon in the early years of the twentieth century. A strident humanist and universalist in a provincial and sectarian society, Botros wishes for nothing less than the day when “the East [will] catch up with the West and – why not – outstrip it”. Origins is hot with his ringing assertions and demands, with Maalouf’s own voice providing a quieter counterpoint. Among the notes that Maalouf strikes is one that every reader can relate to: that of not taking old people seriously enough, or of reducing them to a bag of burdens and eccentricities. “Elderly persons are a treasure that we squander in cajoleries and blandishments; then we remain forever unsatisfied,” writes Maalouf. “[B]y reviving the past, we enlarge our living space.” A most unusual and charming book.
Leszek Kolakowski’s Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? (Basic Books in the USA, Allen Lane in the UK), a tour through the riches of the Western philosophical tradition by one of the world’s greatest living philosophers, was a little gem of trenchant thinking and compressed erudition. Kolakowski knows that his material is vast, so he synthesises the thought of each figure he takes up – Socrates, Heraclitus, Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Kant, Bergson, Nietszche, among others – into a question, and shows how his subject answered that question, anew, in a convincing and yet startling way. Descartes’ aim was “to find the absolute beginning of knowledge, the starting point that is immune to error and doubt”; Aquinas holds, against the might of the Christian tradition, that “the fact that we are corporeal beings is not a minor or contingent matter, the result of chance or a reason for shame; it is part of the definition of our existence; Locke demonstrated what seems obvious to us today, that “liberty, property, political equality, religious toleration and the people as judge of the executive power – all these elements of the social contract are connected”. The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek work philosophos, a lover of wisdom or truth, and Kolakowski shows us the human mind arrowing away towards that goal through the centuries and allows us to participate in the thrill of these endeavours. I always feel especially awake after reading Kolakowski: read, for instance, his piece "What the Past is For".
The historian David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe 570-1215 (Norton) was a marvellous reconstruction, wide in its historical sweep – acute in its points of rest or focus, and narrated in the splendid lancing sentences of a masterly writer of prose – of the ascent of the newly emergent religion of Islam in Europe in the Middle Ages and its sallies upon Christendom. Lewis shows how the rule over a part of Spain for nearly four centuries by an enlightened Muslim dynasty, the Umayyids, was a kind of golden age of religious tolerance, cosmopolitan values, and science and learning in medieval Europe. He argues that today “much of the Muslim world stands in relationship to Europe and the United States as much of a ramshackle Christian world once stood in relationship to a highly advanced Islamic one”. Lewis shows us how interconnected our civilizational pasts really are, and how we cannot possibly take a us-versus-them, boxed-up approach to history, much less the present. Lewis is also the author of a two-volume biography of WEB Du Bois and another of Martin Luther King.
Lastly, I also found much to enjoy in Chitrita Banerji’s whistlestop tour of Indian cuisine Eating India (Penguin Viking), Alice Albinia’s massively erudite study of the Indus river Empires of the Indus (Hachette India), and the study by Martin Dupuis and Keith Boeckelman of the early years in politics of America’s new President, Barack Obama: The New Face of American Politics (Praeger).


AHR said...

To the Castle and Back is a wonderful choice for anyone interested in the mind of a great artist who offers valuable insights into the world of politics. Havel is that all too rare public man who cares about important matters greater than himself. This book is recommended for its writing, the history it records, and the lessons it teaches. Its a pleasure to read to boot.

HRV said...

Thanks to your review, I hunted down Democracy - Crisis & Renewal and enjoyed it very much indeed. I had to buy it over amazon, because it just wasn't available in any of the bookshops in Delhi.

Chandrahas said...

Avraham – Good to see your endorsement of my choice for top book. I felt like I learnt something from every page of Havel's book.

Venkatesh – I'm amazed you made all that effort to track down Ginsborg, and glad it was worth the effort. I can tell you also, if it's of any help to you, that Penguin India published an edition of The Politics of Everyday Life three years ago that should be much more easily available in Indian stores, for Rs.295. I just bought my own copy.

Hari said...

From this list, I'll make sure I track down Ginsborg's Democracy; Empires of the Indus; and Origins. I did begin God's Crucible, but found it a difficult read; I'll continue it some other time.

While Chakravarti's book is very important, his tendency to dramatize the last line of every section of the book was a bit annoying. But that's only a minor complaint.

My own favorites from this year:

1. Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, perhaps the best book written by an outsider on the continent. The book draws on Dowden's extensive experience (something like three decades) as a journalist in Africa. Even Chinua Achebe, always sceptical of outsiders writing about Africa, has nothing but praise for Dowden's book.

2. Stuart Gordon's short but illuminating When Asia was the World is a collection of essays on Asian travelers who wrote of their journeys (included here are Ibn Battuta, Babur, and Tome Pires).

3. My top choce this year, though, goes to an unusual book. Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Affects Our Lives explains, in lucid prose and with interesting personal and historical anecdotes, the theory and history of probability - perhaps the most slippery and confusing field of mathematics. But The Drunkard's Walk is also a philosophical book. Here is a quote:

“The cord that tethers ability to success is both loose and elastic. It is easy to see fine qualities in successful books or to see unpublished manuscripts, inexpensive vodkas, or people struggling in any field as somehow lacking. It is easy to believe that ideas that worked were good ideas, that ideas and plans that did not were ill conceived. And it is easy to make heroes out of the most successful and to glance with disdain at the least. But ability does not guarantee achievement, nor is achievement proportional to ability. And so it is important to always keep in mind the other term in the equation – the role of chance.”

A very happy new year to you - Feliz Año Neuvo.

Hari Batti said...

Well, this is a year old, but it came in handy today. I was working on something for farmer suicide and was looking for Red Sun, but had misplaced it. After reading your review here and in Mint, it all came back. Thanks for the good work.