Wednesday, August 27, 2008

James Ellroy - L.A.Confidential

Something struck me towards the end of this classic crime novel - no one in James Ellroy's world is "good". Everyone has a flaw. There are no heros, only victims. There are of course innocent bystanders, but you get the impression that the people killed in the mass murder at the Nite Owl cafe are probably guilty of something, if only the author had got around to telling us what it was exactly.

This is perhaps fitting for this convoluted story which mixes murder, police brutality with a web of sex, pornography and political corruption. The two main police characters, carry their personal flaws through into their police work - Bud White for instance carries a hatred of wife beaters - or indeed anyone who brutalises women. His police work often spills over into vigilante action against the perpetrators of such violence. Many of the other officers are prepared to bend or break the law to further their own careers - all of them hold racist ideas against the cities black community.

How realistic this all this is difficult to say - certainly it's a far cry from many detective novels, with squeaky clean heroes and stereotypical baddies. The complex plot reflects perhaps the reality of corruption - the web of intrigue that drags dozens of people into illegal activity. And their is a ring of truth to the nasty racial attitudes of the policemen.

Apparently, some of the key moments in the book are based on historical events. In particular, this scene of police brutality, which shapes the novel at the very beginning. It's an enjoyable read, though not necessarily a pleasant one.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Giles Tillotson – Taj Mahal

Early on in this new book on the Taj Mahal, the author makes the point that the building has reached a level of recognition in the popular consciousness, far beyond anything that those who original built it could have imagined. The building has been used in India itself to advertise everything from “tea to hotels”.

Internationally of course, the very silhouette of the building represents India incarnate which is why, as the author writes, there is “no town in midland Britain without at least one Taj Mahal takeaway”.

Surprisingly perhaps, the Taj Mahal doesn’t have that long a history, though the stories that have grown up around it would fill a book far longer than this one.

The one thing that most people know about the Taj, is that it is a tomb. Built in the 1630s by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Taj Mahal’s huge dome covers the grave of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died during the birth of the couple’s fourteenth child. Shah Jahan himself was buried next too her, unusually off-centre in this most symmetrical of buildings.

As Tillotson says - “The construction of the tomb… the effort, the cost and the splendid result have all been taken as further evidence of the power of Shah Jahan’s grief”. For many, these facts alone make the Taj Mahal the greatest monument to love – indeed it is why that arch-manipulator of the media, Princess Diana, could use it as a backdrop to send a message of loneliness on a visit to India with her then husband, Prince Charles.

For most readers in Britain the history of India will started with Britain’s involvement in that country, so Tillotson’s potted history of the Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan’s rise to power and his eventual house arrest by one of his sons, who assumed control of the throne, is informative and fascinating.

The wealth and power of the Mughal emperors is of course demonstrated by the Taj Mahal itself, but the design of the building came from a long tradition of Mughal architecture. This is often overlooked, and by the time of European involvement in the country, the building became the centre of a debate on it’s origin.

The somewhat racist attitudes of the white European colonials towards the Indian people meant that the Taj didn’t fit into either the Western sterotypes of backward India, nor to their ideas of art and architecture. The buildings very beauty became a problem for some of its visitors.

One of the earliest accounts by a Westerner, is from a French physician, Francois Bernier, who wrote from Dehli in 1663. For Bernier, the Taj Mahal doesn’t fit any established European tradition, though he is at pains to describe its layout and dimensions in terms of Parisian landmarks. While “liking Mughal architecture regardless”, Bernier comes away confused and worried that “I may have imbibed an Indian taste”.

Several similar accounts are described in the book – and we get a sense that many western colonials were disorientated by the Taj Mahal – it must have symbolished a different India – one that was at odds with the prevailing attitudes of the time.

Later on some learned architects went so far as to consider Mughal buldings to be of no value at all. Edwin Lutyens came to the country in 1912 to plan the new “Imperial City” for the colonial masters. He came away from a study tour of the country declaring that “I d not believe that there is any real Indian architecture”.

Perhaps it is this sort of view that has allowed many since the creation of the building to argue that there must have been European involvement in its design and erection. The author deals ably with these and other myths – his answers illuminating our own views of the building and the stories that have grown up with it.

The last chapters of the book deal with the historical and cultural legacy of the Taj Mahal. As a new wonder of the world, the building symbolises more that its collected history and culture – which is why there continue to be debates and argument over who should control it and how it should be looked after.

The building was originally designed to be self sufficient – raising funds from the fruits grown in its extensive and sumptuous gardens. Now, some eight thousand people a day visit the Taj Mahal – their cash is a major source of revenue, which no doubt creates its own problems and arguments.

Considering how famous the Taj Mahal is, few in the western world will have any idea of its real history. This history deserves to be told, not simply because it is fascinating, but really because the Taj Mahal doesn’t have a history of its own. The buildings history is intertwined with the history of the Mughal emperors as well as the rise and fall of the British Empire.

Its cultural imagery says much about the movement of millions of Indian people around the world, and their reception in places like the UK. The Taj’s image as a monument to love and a destination for honeymoon couples tells us much about ourselves and our own hopes, and the arguments that go on about it’s future give indications about the vested interests that arise around any famous place.

Giles Tillotson’s book is an excellent introduction to all of this, and it comes highly recommended.

Related Reviews (Other books in the Wonders of the World series)

Fenlon - Piazza San Marco
Goldhill - The Temple of Jerusalem
Gere - The Tomb of Agamemnon
Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Neil Faulkner - Rome: Empire of the Eagles

There is an oft quoted rhetorical question from Monty Python's Life of Brian, which goes something like "So, apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine and education, what have the Roman's ever done for us?"

The view of the Roman Empire as an essentially benevolent force that brought stability, peace and prosperity to the areas of the globe it touched is one that pervades many accounts of the time. Neil Faulkner's new book is an attempt to redress that balance.

Faulkner points out that the Roman empire was rooted in violence. Essentially a top-heavy civilisation its capital and major cities were net consumers of wealth from every other area of the Empire. Millions of slaves, raw materials, crops and goods were needed by the Romans and regular military expansion was needed both to find new areas of surplus value, and protect those existing ones.

For Faulkner, the essential dynamic of the Roman period was a military one - he writes in his introduction that:

"Rome was a dynamic system of military imperialism - of robbery with violence - and that its rise and fall, its conquests and defeats, its revolutions and civil wars can best be understood as manifestations of this."

Faulkner writes from a Marxist and anti-imperialist point of view. Though he explicitly points out that his position isn't a "orthodox" Marxist interpretation. However it is one that is fundamentally anti-imperialist and is coloured by his understanding that empires in the past and in their more contemporary clothes are never forces that operate in the interests of the people they seek to rule.

For me (and other reviews - see this ISJ review) the problem is that if Faulkner's dynamic seems to fit events, it does so because it is quite superficial. I don't have an expert academic understanding of Rome, but Faulkner seems to ignore some key aspects of Roman social life - the centrality of the slave economy and the surplus value if creates is conspicuous by the lack of detail here, and I think this is a major error. Little is said about how much the artisans, labourers or the urban poor contributed to the creation of value for the Roman emperors and if continual expansion was so important for the Romans, why are their some periods where this wasn't Imperial strategy?

More worrying though is the way that Faulkner's analysis essentially leads to a history of Rome through the roles of important men. Particularly the Emperors. There is no doubt of course that the individual characters of certain Emperors did alter the external and internal priorities of Rome. But I think Faulkner goes too far.

Elsewhere I lauded Michael Parenti's book. Faulkner argues that Parenti comes down too much on the side of Caesar as a representative of the poor and dispossessed. Fualkner points out that Julius Caesar was as much of an imperialist, warmonger and brutal practitioner of genocide. This is true. But that doesn't stop Caesar being interested in the poor people of Rome, as a method of strengthening his position in the Roman Ruling class and pushing his vision of the Roman empire.

For Marx, Class Struggle is the motor of history, yet in this book the motor is the military conquest. Surely we should be asking how does the military side of things allow the Roman rulers to continue to exploit those who create the wealth of Rome? All too often we are left with the view that the Roman army went somewhere, defeated a massive native army, stripped the country bare, established some Roman settlements and that was that. This doesn't feel too much like a rounded explanation to me.

This isn't to say that Faulkner's book isn't worth reading. The opening chapters that explain the development of Rome from town to city state are fascinating, as too is the general arc of the narrative, about how the internal economic dynamics of the Empire led to its weakening and eventual slow collapse. The detail of the last centuries of the Empire was new to me, and filled in a lot of gaps - particularly for instance, why the ruins we see are usually from the middle period of Rome's history, rather than the later days.

I'd recommend this for those who want a more in-depth understanding of the Roman dynamic, but read it with an open mind. The "interpretive narrative" that Faulkner offers needs debate, discussion and fleshing out, but all our understanding of this important period of history will be improved by that debate.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Thomas Glavinic - NIght Work

How was it that Winston Churchill described the former Soviet Union? "A riddle wrapped up in an enigma". That is a very good description of this complex, yet strangely simple novel.

The plot follows that popular brand of apocalyptic science fiction that this reader is particularly partial too. In these books the hero of the novel awakes to find himself the last person alive on the planet. Civilisation has been decimated by plaque or some other holocaust and the plot follows the desperate attempts of the survivors to continue their lives. Often re-creating their former existence until the electricity fails or some other such stark metaphor for the end of civilisation.

Glavinic hasn't really written that sort of story though it does start out like so many of the others. Jonas wakes in Vienna. His normal routine is only interrupted by trivial matters - the radio fails to find any station, the newspaper hasn't been delivered. It's only while waiting for his bus to work that he realises that there is no traffic. No noise. No people.

Much of what the author describes is the desperate attempts by Jonas to come to terms with what has happened - his girlfriend away in Britain doesn't answer her telephone. But he regularly calls her anyway. His internet connection fails immediately, yet the electricity continues uninterrupted, so Jonas is able to explore the world that he might be normally excluded from without worrying about finding food or getting trapped in a lift.

There are some deeply chilling moments - mostly as you try to solve the puzzle over what has happened, but the most scary for me (at 2am!) was the reference to the old ghost story about the last man alive in the world who hears a knock on the door. What would you do when you know there is no one else in the world beside yourself and the telephone rings?!

Jonas gradually goes mad. I think this is a clear element to the plot line but is missed by many other reviews of this wonderful book. It's clear that he behaves rationally but his mind cannot cope with the huge transformation that he has gone through. He becomes obsessed with the reality of his situation. Does the world really exist when he isn't there? Does a 'phone ring when there is no one to hear it?

Installing video cameras around the city he watches himself and the empty streets. Disappointed to find that while the streets are there while he is absent nothing else changes. In his frustration he turns the cameras on his sleeping self and witnesses his alter-ego "The Sleeper" wake and move around, waving a knife, behaving oddly.

Now of course comes the crisis of self belief. Who is this other person? Which of course begs the follow up question - who are we really? On a long road trip to find his former girlfriend, "The Sleeper" spends the night reversing the long distances travelled leaving Jonas to repeat the trip over and over again in a struggle with himself.

The ending is, as many have pointed out, disappointing. But it is appropriate. This is not a novel with a plot line - rather it is a study of the self. The battle to understand might be lost, but Jonas wins his struggle to stay human.