Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paul Theroux - The Great Railway Bazaar

Paul Theroux's rail journeys are never less than epic. In this trip from the early 1970s, he leaves London one day, famously stating that he has "seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it". He evokes a desire to see the remote and unusual, to meet new people and explore a world that isn't yours.

But, increasingly I found that Theroux's descriptions were less those of an awe inspired traveller conveying the excitement of new places and more those of a cynic, coloured by not a little with belief in western superiority.

But the journey itself is amazing, London, Paris, Milan to Belgrade is epic enough. But then on to Ankara, Teheran, skipping Afghanistan by plane, he visits India from top to bottom, Burma, and Thailand (using planes to travel between countries) then a fascinating journey on a vanished railway through a Vietnam still torn by war. Plane to Japan allows Theroux to riff rather to much on the strangeness he perceives in the Japanese, finally he takes the long road home, the Trans Siberian Express through a northern USSR, strangely open and inviting to Western visitors.

But it is Theroux's style that is painful. His wonderful descriptions often lapse into some comment that seems deliberately designed to denigrate an entire people:
The Japanese are marvellous packagers of merchandise. These souvenirs are crammed in  the plastic shopping bags that form the basis of the Japanese traveller's luggage. And there are other parcels, for the nobori-san, not trusting the food on Japanese National Railways, brings his own lunch pail. When he wakes, he rummages at his feet and discovers a sealed tin of rice and fish that, without stretching or rising from his padded armchair, he eats, blowing and smacking.
When not dismissing entire cultures, there are moments of genuine passion and interest. I was taken by the number of times that Vietnamese women offered Theroux their young blond haired children, one of the legacy's of the US's ongoing presence in the country. But all in all, this enormous journey cannot really be comprehended in such a short trip. Towards the end of his journey in Japan, Theroux himself becomes exhausted by the changing places and times, entering a brief depression fueled by alcohol, he meditates on how aimless it seems. But that is not surprising, train travel is inevitably punctuated by destinations, but if your business is travel, the destinations become less important and a book written about them, will have the feel of a disjointed collection of anecdotes. Which is, perhaps, a fitting summary of these early writings.

Related Reviews

Theroux - Riding the Red Rooster (China)
Theroux - Dark Star Safari (Africa)
Theroux - The Old Patagonian Express (The Americas)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Margaret Dewar - The Quiet Revolutionary

People make history but the people who do so are often forgotten. Everyone learns the names of generals or kings in history, or even those of dictators. But their soldiers, subjects and victims remain anonymous.

Margaret Dewar played barely a small role in history, yet her life charts some of the greatest events of the 20th century. If it wasn't for this autobiography, she would literally remain a footnote in a book. Yet her life was shaped by the forces of history and her documentation of them is worthy of re-reading. Born early in the 20th century in Russia, she came of a well to do German family. The first chapters are a fascinating story of a forgotten life in rural Russia - the warm memories of Christmas and Easter, the old traditions that seem quaint, yet have resonances today.

But there were great events on the horizon. Margaret lives through the Russian Revolution, moving to Moscow in the aftermath of the Civil War that was launched against the early Soviet power. Her recollections of hunger and rationing are her chief memories of those times. But she wasn't particularly political, though discussions about contemporary events were part of her life. She was more interested in music and learning the piano. What is fascinating are how the little events of life illuminate the wider situation - how trains would delay for days, or passengers would have to get off to cut firewood for fuel.

Seeking a better life, her stepfather flies with his family to Berlin in the early 1920s. With the hindsight we have, this is folly, but it must have seen an opportunity to good to miss, given their German nationality. Of course Germany in those years was seething with revolutionary struggle and the growth of counter-revolutionary fascist forces. Again concentrating on her dancing and music, most events are a backdrop, yet Margaret cannot avoid the politics - she comes across the Communist Party and becomes an activist. Admitting to finding it hard, she finds herself leading meetings and demonstrations.

Those of us active in left wing politics will recognise much of what she describes of those years - the meetings and debates, though she paints a picture of an organisation already stale with the grip of Stalinism. Members rarely read anything beyond official communist papers for instance and she doesn't feel she really can understand what is going on in the world, limited as her view is by the constraints of the needs of the party. There doesn't seem anything in the way of independent thought and action, rather the slavish following of a line. She and her comrades learn by rote to argue against Leon Trotsky's politics, even though none have them have read a word by him.

With the coming to power of Hitler the Communist Party melts away almost overnight. Margaret by then has visited Russia again as part of a delegation and has started to see through some of the rose-tinted images that have been painted. Eventually, questioned by the Gestapo, she flees overland (skiing some of the way) to the Czech Republic where she becomes deeper involved Trotskyist movement. From then, she travels to France and eventually Britain, meeting and marrying the Trotskyist activist Hugo Dewar (who wrote a history of the British Communist Party that I reviewed here). For the rest of her long life she and him work tirelessly to rebuild revolutionary organisation, becoming involved in the organisation that eventually becomes today's SWP.

Margaret Dewar's life is fascinating, not least because of the people she met - Clara Zetkin and Jan Frankel (Trotsky's secretary) for instance. But also for her descriptions of radical organisations and underground work. But mostly it is inspiring because it is the story of an ordinary woman caught up in extraordinary events who continues to struggle for a better world for her whole life.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Philip José Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go

First published in 1971, this novel must rapidly have become a classic of the Science Fiction genre. Despite some rather clunky dialogue in places, the author has created a strange, fantastical world that allows him to explore a multitude of ideas and experiences. It's also believable, which give the world's nature might sound strange, but the characters and places work well and hang together.

So what is this world? There isn't really a way of telling from the story itself. It is a planet that is encircled from top to bottom by a river, along the banks of which every human being that has ever lived is regenerated simultaneously at some unknown point in the future. Naked with only a small pot that allows them to create food from mysterious artifacts, the humans find themselves reincarnated with a variety of people from different eras. Our hero, the famous writer, explorer and adverntuer, Richard Burton is reincarnated with a rather prim woman from the 19th Century, a Neanderthal, a collector (and Burton obsessive) and an alien who in Burton's future has destroyed most of humanity. Their travels mean they meet people from every era of human existence, all united in their arrival on a world with limited resources.

The story of exploration has been detailed elsewhere - though I'd recommend exploring the book. More interestingly for the purposes of this review is the way that Farmer explores topics such as anti-semitism. Richard Burton's alleged anti-semitic writings are mentioned, though Burton is angered to be described like this. But anti-semitism in the era that comes after the Nazi holocaust evokes a stronger response than it might have done in the past.

When people die on this new planet, they are again reincarnated, naked and whole in a random location. Burton discovers then that you can explore this world by suicide. But are you the same person if you do this, everytime you awake. Your memories indicate your are, but you clearer are different physically. Burton meets and travels with the Nazi Goering, from Burton's own future. Goering himself dies multiple times, often, and rather gratifyingly at the hands of people who understand his historical role. But Goering changes. Never seeming to give up on his past, he at least recognises that he is destroyed and repents of sorts.

So we have a planetary setup that allows the author to explore multiple ideas - add in the obiligitary 1970s sex and drugs and the stage is set for some interesting tales and explorations.

There are some annoying bits. The writing can, as I said, clunk. The author places himself into the novel as a collector and potential biographer of Burton. Their reincarnated proxmity may be coincidence, though it makes the novel work. Yet the author has such an autobiographical knowledge of Burton and other contemporaries (reminding them in places as what they did on such-and-such a day, or where they trained or married) that you can't help but feel jared by such obvious plot devices.

Nevertheless, this is fun and different. I'll hunt down the sequels.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Tony Cliff - Trotsky, The Sword of the Revolution, 1917 - 1923

This, the second part of Tony Cliff's four volume biography of  Leon Trotsky deals with the period that would be most disputed perhaps by Joseph Stalin and his followers at home and abroad. This is the aftermath of the October revolution - the workers and soldiers have seized power in Russia. Soviet power is a reality across a huge swathe of the globe. The seizure of power itself had be masterminded in many ways by Trotsky, and the book starts with the discussions that took place immediately - how to form a government and so on.

But the meat of this book deals with the fallout of the revolution. Russia was an immensely backward nation, dominated by a peasantry which had only recently broken from its serfdom. The working class, though powerful, was small. It had lead a mass revolution that had the loyalty and backing of the majority of the population, but no-body believed that Soviet Russia, alone could survive.

Of course, the seizure of power by the working class wasn't something that could be allowed to go unchecked - almost immediately the foreign nations intervened. Invading armies from those nations that had being battering each other months before in the trenches of World War One, were turned on the new revolutionary nation.

Trotsky was, perhaps after Lenin, one of the most well known and respected revolutionaries. He was at the heart of the debates, and indeed the action that took place in the aftermath of October 1917. He wasn't always right, and despite the authors obvious respect for Trotsky, he isn't afraid to criticise and disagree. This is most obvious with the political battles that took place immediately after Lenin's death when Trotsky could and should have moved to isolate and remove Stalin and his clique from power. This is what he had agreed he would do with Lenin, and Cliff sees Trotsky as betraying that agreement;

"That Trotsky was later very embarrassed by his behaviour at the Twelfth Congress is clear from the fact that no reference at all to the congress can be found in his autobiography, while four pages are devoted to describing duck hunting in precisely the place where a description of the congress would be expected."

Perhaps the most important and inspiring parts of the book are those that deal with Trotsky's forging of the Red Army. One of the central planks of the revolution had been the desire for peace. To have to create a new army from scratch, when the old Tsarist one had melted away during the revolutionary year of 1917 was difficult enough. To inspire and lead this army to defeat first the counter-revolutionary "white" armies and then the invading imperialist ones, was nothing short of miraculous.

But because the army was motivated by more than conscription or mercenary interests, it was far better than its opponents. Time and again they won battles (at least once with Trotsky leading on horseback) they should have lost. As Cliff says, "The Red Army men knew what they were fighting for, and believed in it passionately". Something that couldn't be said of those they were fighting.

But the gradual degeneration of working class power is always there in this story. The Red Army is part of this. The most able workers, the best communists joined the civil war, undermining the very heart of Bolshevik power in the factories of Petrograd and Moscow. Alongside this, the growing bureaucracy starts to become a force for itself. Interestingly, Cliff argues that Trotsky's success in forming the Red Army helped to undermine himself as it created a bloc of individuals who had their own interests and ideas. Debates on tactics helped this process:

"The strong influence of guerrillaism among the party cadres led to the formation of a Military Opposition, which continued throughout the civil war and which later became the core of the Stalinist faction."

Trotsky's preoccupation with the civil war, meant that he was absent for some of the most important post-revolution debates, though an enormous outpouring of writings from the period show that he was constantly thinking, reading and writing. The debates on the role of Trade Unions, military strategy, international questions are important, and show that even as the revolution declined the spirit of discussion and debate still existed at its core.

But it is with the final fight with Stalin that the book ends. Trotsky comes across as naive about the factional fight that he must fight. He is Lenin's favoured successor, yet seems unwilling to use this to defeat Stalin. Yet I was left with the feeling that even had Trotsky won this factional battle there would seem to have been little that could have been done to turn the tide of revolutionary degeneration. Russia was isolated, the expected international revolution hadn't occurred. Industry was decimated, and the working class tired, exhausted and far reduced.

Cliff understands though that hindsight is important and sums up by arguing;

"Lack of theoretical and political clarity led Trotsky to make a number of concessions and compromises, above all to Zinoviev and Kamenev, who were to become his new allies in the United Opposition of 1926-7. Nothing was more alien to Trotsky’s character than hesitation and fudging. When by 1927 he grasped the enormity of Stalin’s crimes, and called Stalin ‘the gravedigger of the revolution’, he became completely uncompromising."

When the next stage of the fight was on, Trotsky carried the flame of international socialism and helped to keep it alive. That he had played such a central role in the revolution was something that Stalin tried to write from history, yet couldn't quite destroy.

If you can't get hold of a copy of this volume second hand, you can find it at the Marxist Internet Archive here.

Related Reviews

Cliff - Trotsky; Towards October. Volume one of this biography.
Choonara - A Rebel's Guide to Trotsky
Hallas - Trotsky's Marxism