Book Review and analysis-“Notes Of A Native Son” by James Baldwin

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Author–                         James Baldwin

Category/ Genre–      Nonfiction/ Essays/ LiteraryCriticism/ Personal Essay

People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead, turns himself into a monster.”

James Baldwin

Introduction

Speaking of James Baldwin, a few things that immediately cross my mind are his novel ‘Giovanni’s Room‘,  the 1941 oil on canvas painting ‘Dark Rapture‘ by the American Modernist painter Beauford Delaney of Baldwin seated as nude, his trenchant quotes and the incisive anatomization of race and identity through his spell-binding essays.

I had read ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ years back, as a young reader, and had been fixed since of the impression that I had gleaned of him as an author confessional of his sexual identity, candid and forthrightly in exploring homosexuality at a time when the very term made for moral bankruptcy and anti-Christian bearing. Then, amidst the passing years, I happened to read his quotes, essays, and most notably the critical reviews of authors about his works, Giovanni’s Room one among them. I realized its dimensions and shades that I had missed as a young reader. The reviews reminded me of the depth of his observation and experiences of the social dynamics, something crucial for a novelist and essayist, that I had failed to take note of all those years back.

Likewise, my interest in paintings and the painters and my love of painting brought me to read the articles about American modernist painter Beauford Delaney and his works. I was literally stunned to learn about his oil painting ‘Dark Rapture‘ of a seated male nude. Stunned, since, one- I had never known him painting nudes, two- that the painting was of his protege James Baldwin, three- the regality of the figure emanating confidence, and four- the dynamics of colors, red, blue, green, pink and yellow that swirl in such a manner that we are able to distinguish the figure in an entity, still inseparable from the surroundings that flow and merge with the figure. (((A slight detour…..For those interested in paintings and art, a fair and perfect foil could be found in John Singer Sargent‘s male nude study of his African- American muse Thomas E McKeller, a bellhop and elevator-attender and believed to have had intimately associated with Sargent. Sargents muse seems stressed, evidently posing as an object/ subject for the painter, while Delaney’s protege seems to confidently pose gleaming in the rainbow colors. Sargent is said to have had never openly admitted his relationship with his muse and he was casually racist as evidenced by his letters. Their intimacy could well be just a matter of conjecture, we don’t know for sure. His black male nudes are still a subject of racial tension owing to the manner in which he had represented them. Delaney was a mentor and father figure to Baldwin and the creative point where their artistic and intellectual talents intersected in mutually beneficial ways. It seems their relationship was platonic, from the available records))))

Personally, I love Baldwin’s essays. He was a playwright, poet, social critic, and activist too. His works dissect the complex racial, class, and sexual identities and questions the entrenched inequalities in society and the psychological trauma of the bleakness of societal acceptance that an individual has to bear by dint of these. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement (1950’s and 60’s), an outspoken proponent of gay and lesbian rights. Born in Harlem, NewYork, he was the son of a minister and became a preacher at the age of 14 ( References to the Black Church are scattered in his writings). He moved to Southern France in 1948, where he wrote ‘Giovanni’s Room‘, the protagonist, an American white homosexual who struggles with his sexual identity and other characters predominantly white as opposed to his other works featuring blacks. He had to contend with the ire of the Black Community due to the exploration of gay themes in his works. He died from stomach cancer in 1987 in France and was buried in Hartsdale, near NewYork.

Review

The book is a collection of ten essays that had appeared previously in different periodicals.

Through them, he searches his identity as a homosexual American black and a writer, explores his experiences, criticizes the works such as protest novels and movies, discusses the socio-cultural milieu of Harlem, the strained relationship with his father, his own contradictory views that clashed with himself, the origins of racial prejudice through the mirror of his self, the definition of being a ‘native son’, and his experiences living in Europe.

The ten essays belong to different genres of literary criticism, social analysis, and personal memoir. His works are ever relevant notably at present when we read daily in the news about the institutional racism and atrocities that the black Americans encounter, movements like Black Lives Matter at the forefront of fighting these ills, putting forward the uneasy question, why after all these decades of the postbellum era the racial prejudice is hard to be wiped off completely.

In the first part of the book are three critical essays. Baldwin stresses the point that artists should better represent their work through their own personal experiences than trying to champion a social cause generally, such that the subject could be dealt with honestly and with integrity. Here, he is not telling all artists to produce autobiographical works or memoirs solely, but exhorting to mint the work through the machine of personal experience, so that the final result would be more beautiful, candid and genuine. He criticizes ‘Native Son‘(1940) a novel written by the American author Richard Wright in which Wright attributes the crimes of the youth Bigger Thomas, a black man in poor southern Chicago to the systemic degradation and ills of the society. Similarly,  the anti-slavery novel by the American author Harriet Beecher StoweUncle Tom’s Cabinhas also been criticized. The author was a white American abolitionist. But, I, for one, think that though personal experience counts, even authors without much of that in a specific area or subject could make a whole world of difference through their works highlighting social ills.  ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabinis famed to have laid the groundwork of the Civil War and helped to change the attitudes of at least some of the whites towards the blacks. Though white, she was ardently abolitionist.

Baldwin is incisive about the characterization and plot of the 1954 American musical film, Carmen Jonesproduced and directed by the Austrian -born theater and film director Otto Preminger. The screenplay was based on the stage musical by the same name. The plot compares and seeks the parallels of an amoral gypsy and an amoral black woman. The fact that there are no white characters, the seemingly parodic speech of the black characters, and the absurd set designs are criticized by Baldwin as nothing but condescending. He brushes off the notion in the film that the opera has something to do with the present-day life of African Americans, As per him, the translation is false, the film lacks artistic credibility and concerns much less with African Americans than the other Americans. ( The film is available in YouTube, but I am not interested in musical operatic films and so it was difficult for me to get to his ideas and criticisms about the film)

The second part has three essays about Harlem ghetto, sociopolitical issues, and African American musicians. The last part is personal and concerns with identity, the fraught relationship with his authoritarian father, his experience living in Europe, and the race issues in Europe and America. Here, I am only expounding on the personal essay that deals with Baldwin and his relationship to father.

Worth mentioning is the manner of unflinching honesty with which he writes about his relationship with his father. Though he does not explicitly relate his father’s cruelty, anger, and alienation to the oppression and inner turmoil that haunted the black Americans, it is clear that such a relationship does exist. Baldwin lives under the constant shadow of paranoia about the inheritance of paranoid delusions from his father. Thus he makes a point that even though different disposition-wise and experience-wise, trauma is transferred through generations.

The paranoia is significant in that it creates a self-destructive cycle spoiling the relationship to the society, slashing even the altruistic and munificent arms of help from the outer world. Baldwin’s creativity was recognized first by his white teacher who encouraged him to write, but the act ironically distancing him from her and snatching the opportunity to get ahead due to the ingrained mistrust that his father had towards all the whites. We cannot blame his father here.

Another important point that he projects is about how racist societies force people to suppress their emotions. As an example, he writes about the white waiter, who though sympathetic to him could not express it due to the perceived embarrassment of serving a black diner. Similarly, so as to survive the blacks would need to suppress their rage. It is not just the alienation from society that is worrisome, but that from oneself which creates a conflict within the individual. At the same time, he feels the emotional turmoil and murderous rage that overwhelms his and other’s safety, conflicting with the guilt that he feels towards a white friend.

In his beautiful statement,’ Harlem is waiting‘, he conveys many meanings like waiting for a climactic event, for the war to end, or for racial equality since the moment of their abduction from the heart of Africa. Baldwin is brutally honest in his interpretation of hatred towards his father. As a wise sage, he understands that hatred is self-destructive, though as a common man he nurtures it since he could avoid the pain of losing his father thus preventing the establishment of a genial relationship with him.

He refuses to see his father’s body after he passed away, he could not find suitable clothes and interprets the preacher as dishonest, all alienating him from the process of mourning. Still, he experiences a sudden connection when he hears the song and identifies it as the only moment of connection that he had with his father. He realizes the freedom to be enjoyed by his father’s newborn baby, something he was denied and sees a ray of hope through a part of his father that is still alive.

He empathizes with the Harlem rioters, all the while denouncing it as only an exit of rage and a self-destructive process by attacking businesses thereby wounding the blacks and not the white oppressors. Overall, he characterizes hatred and anger as negative forces, that would only be helpful if it motivates one to oppose injustice.

Though the essay could be generally interpreted as bleak by some who are not big fans of essays, it has so many eye-opening moments of truth that stir the reader to think about the implications that the racial and other inequalities and prejudices impart to the minds of the victims.

Incidentally, while I was reading this book, I happened to watch a video of a black man gunned down by two white men, a father and a son, with a shotgun. As I read the news report from the NYT, I was shocked to learn about how the men were set free first, the institutional inertia and apathy when black lives were concerned, favoritism and cronyism in law enforcement, the manipulation of the storyline making the black man seem a menacing burglar to vindicate a criminal act carried out in broad daylight, policies promoting ingrained xenophobia and nativism and the uttermost abyss into which humans could fall while placing human life and dignity in a hierarchical system. All these, while a two minute video played the act beyond the wildest of doubts possible.

We live in the 21-st century,  we are far more ahead from the old eugenic theories and practices, we exhort that we are an educated lot, that we are at the zenith of the evolutionary process,  wonder when will we evolve into human beings!

“An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” by Shashi Tharoor

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Author– Shashi Tharoor

Genre– Nonfiction/ History

About the author

Shashi Tharoor is a member of the Indian Parliament from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala. He previously served as the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and as the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs.

He is also a prolific author, columnist, journalist and human rights advocate.

He has served on the Board of Overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva and a Fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University. He has also served as a trustee of the Aspen Institute, and the Advisory of the Indo-American Arts Council, the American India Foundation, the World Policy Journal, the Virtue Foundation, and the human rights organization Breakthrough

Tharoor has written numerous books in English. Most of his literary creations are centered on Indian themes and they are markedly “Indo-nostalgic.” Perhaps his most famous work is The Great Indian Novel, published in 1989, in which he uses the narrative and theme of the famous Indian epic Mahabharata to weave a satirical story of Indian life in a non-linear mode with the characters drawn from the Indian Independence Movement. ( Ref: Good Reads author information)

My review

Tharoor mentions what the American historian and philosopher Will Durant  wrote about Britain in 1930, ‘Britain’s conscious and deliberate bleeding of India… [was the] greatest crime in all history’.

In this book, Tharoor has made an impressive case against the empire apologists giving the lie to their claims on benevolence to the empire subjects, and the purported dividends accrued by Indians over the period of colonialism and post-colonialism, shattering the myth of ‘enlightened despotism’ of the empire through his concise, well-scrutinized, trenchant and to the point onslaught. This book followed his famous Oxford speech advocating the cause of reparation by Britain, picking up the gauntlet thrown down by his opponents, daring Britain to take on board its historical responsibility of colonial excesses and depredations.

The British Empire in India began in 1600 as a commercial project in trading silk, spices, and other commodities by the East India Company and which changed into a rapacious and savage enterprise subjugating the natives, misappropriating their wealth and land and trampling their self-respect, identity, and honor under the jackboot of colonialism. What ensued, later on, was organized plunder thrusting a rich civilization into the edge of a precipice, engendering a yawning gap of pecuniary disadvantage with its world share of GDP going into a free fall. When the British acquired the reigns from the Mughal empire, India’s share of world GDP had been 23% and by the time they left, this dropped down to a mere 3%.

Britain’s industrial revolution flourished from the ashes of Indian industries. A well planned and systematic de-industrialization of the textile and steel industries was carried out which put an end to the manufacturing while force-feeding Indians with British exports. Similarly, India’s pioneering shipbuilding industries were forcefully shut down and done away with completely. The ryots(peasants) were saddled with exorbitant taxation, and the local princes were extorted in return for tutelage. All the while, the drain of resources continued unabated to London. India continued to be the gold mine of the empire, the officials vying for the coveted ICS post, ensuring an extortionate salary and pension, all fleeced from the Indians. Whatever developments, in the form of railways, bridges, dams, etc were meant for the commercial benefit of the empire.  History provides us with the axiomatic corroboration, the Jallian Wallah Bagh massacre, forced displacement of the masses, and the Bengal famine to name a few.

Two hundred years of pillage, chicanery, liquidation, and deindustrialization is patently writ large in the annals of colonialism for any cognizant soul, let alone historians and Indian nationalists, to take the apologists for granted in all their conscience. Thus, the import of an adroit orator, wordsmith, and a debater like Tharoor who can deftly weigh in on, driving a coach and horses through the vindicatory assertions of empire apostles by the tenor and trenchancy of his debate substantiating his counterpoints through good sense, wit and researchful sedulousness.

Apologists’ claims of giving India political unity, endowing liberal democracy, freedom of the press, the Parliamentary system, and rule of law are extirpated by his political arguments and Argus-eyed spadework. The most consequential and lingering legacy of the empire in India indubitably is the partition of India, which is a corollary of the British policy of ‘divide et impera‘(divide and rule) on the basis of communalism and politicization of religion and is a case in point. Also, the myth of enlightened despotism advocated by the apologists has been thrashed by counterclaims on the contrary, and their absurdist contentions laid bare. The statements of bequeathal of the alleged British properties like railways, tea, English language, British education, and cricket, as a means of enriching and civilizing a motley amalgam of paganistic wogs, is anatomized, and their alleged altruistic intentions debunked by statistics that run athwart professions.

The arguments against the empire are as blunt, incisive, and muscular as they are equitable. He has objectively endorsed the obvious positives of the Raj, unintentional and corollary to the colonial prosperity though, in the coda. There, still, are Indians oblivious to the dimensions of colonialism foisted on their ancestors and how most, but not all, of the current strifes, ill governance, and policies are a direct sequel of colonial misrule, for whom this book could be a reference work. The ideologies of Gandhism are brushed past in relation to its unrealistic nature in the context of present-day conflicts, concomitantly emphasizing its relevance as an abstemious force that triumphed in defenestrating the imperial regime.

Though conversant with the historical facts, there is a minority of empire sympathizers who turn a blind eye to it and condones this Milton’s Satan of sorts rephrased as ‘The Brown Mans’s Burden’. Nostalgia for the yesteryears of the empire has been a significant contributor to the 52% YES vote for Brexit, which is hauling the nation to a cliffhanger, being condemned to the uncertainty of dallying in the back of the queue being laid out by some allies.

However sublime the tenets of Gandhism, yet, an average man in the street belies pretensions of moral high ground or political correctness and might even savor the frisson of schadenfreude while he catches wind of what could be perceived as the day of reckoning in the form of TATA steel’s pull out of Britain or the looming misgivings post-Brexit. For exposing us to a game like cricket, even incidentally, Britain has scored a point in Indian minds, though the rules of the gentleman’s game had never been emulated by the empire in the real-life experience.

Book Review- ‘That was Dachau’ by Stanislav Zamecnik

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Author–            Stanislav Zamecnik ( Czech historian, Holocaust survivor)

Genre–              Non-fiction/ History

(‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’…..     Primo Levi)

Review

I bought this book while on a visit to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site( created in 1965), Bavaria, Munich during the 2016 summer.  A must-see place for history lovers. The camp is a bit of a harrowing repository of the Dachau archives, houses a museum which really is a time machine, whereby one can hark back to Third Reich and it’s barbarity. I could literally feel the terror while being guided through the camp( the museum is set in such a way). One of the sites which made me stuck as if in a nightmare, was the crematoria where the gassed and poisoned prisoners were burned up. Words definitely fall short for the kind of utter insensibility and cruelty of The Third Reich.

About the book, the author, Stanislav Zamecnik, himself a Holocaust survivor, has stunningly captured the details, shored up by statistics and ample evidence. He has done a painstaking and arduous job of research which is commendable. The fact that he had done this despite the sanction imposed on him by the authorities in the wake of The Prague Spring, which prohibited him from working as a historian, in itself is one of the reasons which make it a must-read for all, in particular, The Third Reich history pursuant. He was imprisoned in Dachau for almost four years. His mission in life was to preserve the memory of Dachau, and he committed himself to the redevelopment of the Dachau Memorial and the permanent exhibition there recreating the realities, leaving his indelible mark on the International Committee of Dachau.

The camp was opened on March 22, 1933, by Heinrich Himmler, 2 months after Adolf Hitler took power, the first one of a series of death camps to follow. It went on to become the instrument of the Nazi extermination regime and the prototype for the other death camps. Dachau was the only camp that remained in operation from 1933 until 1945. Located on the grounds of an abandoned munitions factory, it was intended to house political prisoners at first and later expanded for forced labor and to house Jews from Germany, Austria and other countries that Germany invaded. There were more than 40,000 documented deaths (murders plus death from hunger, malnutrition, overwork, and diseases) out of the 200,000 imprisoned from all over Europe at the site and its subsidiaries.

The entrance gate carries the phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work shall set you free). Dachau’s close proximity to Munich, where Hitler came to power and where the Nazi Party had its official headquarters made it a convenient location. Initially, Hitler imprisoned intellectuals, artists, Jehovah’s witnesses, communists, handicapped and homosexuals for the slave labor for manufacturing weapons for Germany’s war efforts. Later, some of the prisoners were used for brutal medical experiments by the Nazis( There is a touching book about how the Nazi doctors ruthlessly did irrational, unethical, inhumane and brutal experiments- Doctors From Hell by Vivien Spitz- I had read this some time back, hope to re-read and write the review sometime soon).

The first commandant of Dachau was the SS officer, Hilmar Wackerle. A Munich schoolteacher Sebastian Nefzger was killed by the SS officers, who reported the death as a suicide. The Autopsy revealed the cause of death as strangulation and the public prosecutor in Munich, therefore, charged the camp commandant Hilmar Waeckerle and other SS officials in the camp with murder. Himmler was forced to remove Wackerle from his post. But on May 25, 1933, Hitler exempted Dachau from judicial oversight and authority and the SS were given unlimited authority over the camp prisoners. Later, all the camps would be removed from the judicial oversight.

Theodor Eicke, who replaced Wackerle as the camp commandant on  October, 1933, brought in severe punishments including systematic beatings and summary execution for rule infringements or escape attempts. Any attempts at sabotage, escape or political agitation were met with summary execution. Later, this system would be followed for all the other concentration camps run by the SS.

Dachau camp was expanded in 1938 by the construction of an SS military training base by demolishing a WW I era munitions factory. The prisoners were made to work 24/7 for the reconstruction. During the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, about 30,000 Jews were summarily arrested and incarcerated in the three concentration camps, Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen. Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in Germany and Austria were destroyed, burned or vandalized and they were dragged off the streets and homes to the camps, almost 11,000 of them ending up in Dachau.

In 1939, all the prisoners in Dachau were transferred to Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Flossenbeurg camps. The facilities at Dachau were used by the Waffen-SS for training the Death-Head’s Division. The camp would resume operating again in 1940. From 1941 onwards, the SS doctors started selecting the weak, ill and disabled prisoners, who would be transported to Hartheim and get killed there. As more numbers of prisoners started getting executed in Dachau, four crematoria were built along with the construction of a gas chamber. As a part f their plan to Germanize Occupied Poland and undermine the Catholic Church leadership there, more than 2700 clergy were arrested and incarcerated in the “Priest barracks” of Dachau.

SS doctor Sigmund Rascher conducted his infamous cold water freezing experiment on the prisoners, with methods of reviving them after they had been forced to remain in ice- cold water for hours. This was meant to help revive the German Air Force pilots whose planes went down in cold water. Out of 300 test subjects, one-third died. Numerous other prisoners were used for other medical experiments as well. A 1943 Typhus outbreak in the camp forced the SS to quarantine the prisoners and stop the forced labor. Almost 1000 died as a result of the disease.

While the prisoner numbers increased many subcamps sprang up around Dachau in Southern Germany and also in Northern Austria. On April 26, 1945, just three days before the liberation of the camp, the SS forced about 7000 prisoners on ‘The Death March’ to Tegernsee. It lasted for 6 days, while the SS shot the weak on the way, while many died of exhaustion, hunger, and exposure. The surviving prisoners who arrived at Tegernsee were liberated by the American Forces on May 2, 1945.

The Dachau Camp was liberated by the US Forces on April 29, 1945. As they arrived in the camp, they found more than 30 coal cars filled with decomposing bodies and more than 30,000 prisoners in the camp.

As a part of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution‘ to ‘The Jewish Problem‘ many more were exterminated in the other concentration camps. The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site was opened in 1965. The International Monument at the Memorial Site holds a sculpture by Nandor Glid, the Yugoslav sculptor and Holocaust survivor whose father and many other family members were murdered in Auschwitz. The sculpture is a poignant pointer to the Holocaust. It is made of dark bronze. It features short strands of barbed wire on which skeletons are hanging with their heads dangling sharply. On either side of the sculpture are concrete fence posts which closely resemble the ones actually used to support the barbed wire fence around the camp. Underneath the sculpture is the dates 1933 – 1945, the years that the camp was used as a concentration camp for anti-Nazis.

 

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On the west side of the monument  is a wall whose inscription in English reads “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 and 1945 because they resisted nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom and in respect for their fellow men.”
The letters on the east side of the monument wall say “Never Again” in five different languages. In front of the wall is a box of ashes of the victims of the Dachau concentration camp, which was placed here on May 7, 1967, the same day that the Jewish Memorial building was dedicated. These were ashes that were found in red clay urns when Dachau was liberated.
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The International Monument has a wide ramp which slopes down to the base of the sculpture designed by Nandor Glid. On the west side of the ramp is another sculpture which features a bas relief depicting three links of a chain held together by bars in between. This signifies the unity among the prisoners, many of whom were left-wing political prisoners who shared the same beliefs. On the links are enameled triangles in the colors of the cloth badges worn by the prisoners on their uniforms to identify their prisoner classification.
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Red triangles were worn by the Communists, Social Democrats and other political prisoners and blue by the foreign workers, mostly Poles, who were brought to the Dachau camp. The Jews always wore two triangles with a yellow triangle on top of another color, usually red which signified a political prisoner.
Why we should read about the Third Reich and the Holocaust?
The Italian- Jewish Holocaust survivor and writer, Primo Levi, in his autobiographical trilogy ‘If This Is a Man‘, tries to find the reasons for the human barbarity.
Logical thinking and reasoning prompt us human beings to ask questions. Discerning the answers cogently and sizing up the present and future, linking them to the past, requires one to dig deeper into the graveyards of history.
I admit that the read was depressingly bleak. Yet the pages sufficed as steps of knowledge, as answers to how a civilized nation could descend into savagery of this magnitude, how complacence and denial are akin to abetment of organized crime, why only a few were audacious enough to stand up to the ordeals, how a far-right ultra-racist minority could amass the instruments of governance to systematically mass murder an entire race by kindling the smoldering hatred with the aid of warped history, spurious politics, and apocryphal pseudo-science, or, how the social, political and economic environments join forces in the origin, re-incarnation or morphing of one among us into a Frankenstein’s monster.
The answers teach us many things. We learn to pay heed to the forewarnings from society, we try to respect diversity, fend off ‘otherization’, above all to question the unsavory, shady deviances. We learn to react individually and collectively. To teach is to learn and to learn is to question. And learning about the Reich and the Holocaust invariably prepares our mind for questioning, to understand the responsibilities in crimes of not only the men at the top of the ladder, but also the nameless, faceless cohorts at the lowest rungs of the society,  to have the courage of our convictions, to speak out when something is not right. The German Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemoller‘s post-war confession stays ever- relevant, in particular,  in the present times. The following poetic form of his quote is engraved at the  New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

‘ First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me’.

 

As Primo Levi observes, ‘Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions’.

 

Ref:

Book review and analysis- ‘A Room Of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf

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Author– Virginia Woolf

Genre and subgenre– Nonfiction/ Essay/ Feminist literary criticism/ Modernism

Themes– Position of women in fiction and real-life/ Sexist attitude in or towards literature/ Effect of the gender of the writer on their characters or theme or style/ Critical analysis of patriarchal society/ Women’s rights/ Materialistic approach to intellectual freedom and hence literary freedom/ Freedom for creativity in the form of private space as opposed to confinement in a common environment vis-a-vis Edwardian, Elizabethan, and Victorian women.

Introduction

Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room Of One’s Own‘ is one of the earliest and iconic texts of feminist literary criticism. It is an extended essay based on two lectures that she delivered on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’ at Newnham College and Girton College( two women’s colleges at Cambridge University) in 1928.

It is interesting to note that the essay begins with a ‘But’- emphasizing the contrarianism in the topic of women and fiction. She explores her famous argument/ opinion, ‘ A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction‘, and develops and amends it freely through her ‘train of thought‘ method similar to the modernist ‘stream of consciousness‘ method used by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner and utilized by Woolf in her novel,’To The Lighthouse‘. While developing her argument, she cautions the audience to be wary of lies that might flow from her lips amidst truths and facts and to parse the prejudices, idiosyncrasies, and limitations of her argument before drawing one’s own conclusion. And she indicates that fiction might have more truth than fact. The methodology used is historical and sociological analyses, fictional hypotheses, philosophy utilizing symbolism, and motifs. ( Enjoy the brilliant symbolisms as in the other Woolf works)

Woolf invents a fictional narrator, Mary, to serve this purpose ( Woolf tells us that her name does not matter), and a fictional University of Oxbridge. It is the character, Mary who takes the arguments forward on the course of visiting the fictional colleges and The British Museum while scouring documents for asserting her arguments.

Review and analysis

The essay starts with Mary sitting on the banks of a river near the college, lost in serious thought about women and fiction. Woolf compares the thought as ‘letting its line into the stream‘, and idea as ‘ a small fish tugging at the end of one’s line, a sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating‘.

Mary, intent on developing the thought, slowly walks over the grass turf of the college, while she is being intercepted by the Beadle with horror and indignation. He literally (and figuratively) shows her path as the gravel and not the turf and stresses that only Fellows and Scholars( all men) are allowed to use the turf. Though the turf is better than gravel for walking, it has been protected as an all-men privilege that has been rolled out in succession for the past 300 years and the interruption sends her little fish( idea) into hiding. She thinks of literary geniuses like Charles Lamb and Thakeray who had set their feet on that ground hundreds of years ago. She opens the library door and is again being intercepted by a gentleman who tells her that ladies were not allowed, but with a Fellow of the college or with a letter of introduction. Mary vows never to enter there again- ‘ let it sleep forever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again.’

She passes a chapel watching a congregation flow inside and hesitates to enter, lest she might be denied entry again.  Reflecting on the amount of money, gold, and silver that might have flowed into the basements of these buildings from the coffers of kings, queens, and nobles during yesteryears, nowadays donated by wealthy civilian men ‘when the age of faith was over and the age of reason had come’, who endows chairs, lectureships, and fellowships. She goes to lunch, describing the gourmet food on display that she compares with the minimal dishes for dinner in a women’s college. Suddenly she sees a tailless Manx cat walking across the quadrangle and feels something is lacking. The tailless cat is symbolic of the post-war period that changes the music of pre-war England to meaningless regular conversations. It might also be symbolic of women as second-class citizens, lacking the qualities of men and so unwelcome on the grassy lawn. The luxurious lunch is symbolic of the wealth possessed by aristocratic men whose thoughts and conversations are unimpeded unlike the dinner at the women’s college which is striking and representative of the inequalities endured by women for centuries from a patriarchal society.

The narrator searches for answers in the British Museum, London by scouring the section on women and fiction, hoping to consult the learned and the unprejudiced, thereby straining off personal, accidental, prejudiced impressions and so to reach the pure fluid, ‘the essential oil of truth’. Here, she finds institutionalized sexism, the books about women were written by men and never in the other order. Instead of answers, she starts thinking more questions, primarily why women were poorer than men. She evokes the famed authors belittling women, citing Samuel Butler (‘ Wise men never say what they think of women’), and Alexander Pope (‘ Most women have no character at all’). Napoleon thought them incapable, Mussolini despised them. Yet, some like Dr. Johnson and Goethe honored them.

Figuring the truth running through her fingers, it seems a pure waste of time to consult those gentlemen who specialize in women. ‘One might as well leave their books unopened’. She draws a figure of Professor X engaged in writing ‘ The Mental, Moral and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex‘ as if he were killing a noxious insect, looking very angry and irritated. The figure itself was a reflection of the narrator’s anger upon seeing the title of his creation. She wonders how anger had snatched her pencil while she dreamt-‘Had anger, the black snake been lurking among the other emotions?‘. She wonders if the book had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.

She reads a newspaper at lunch, pervading with misogynist, patriarchal condescension and notices the presence of the professor in it in the guise of the editor, sub-editor, foreign secretary, Judge, shareholder and so forth. It was his money, power and influence talking. But, still, he was angry and this perplexes her. She concludes that one would not have been angry if the professor had written dispassionately in an unbiased manner using indisputable proofs. He might well be concerned with his superiority while insisting emphatically upon the inferiority of women. Had he been objective by not utterly focussing on the inferiority of the other sex, he would have attained the freedom of thought for literary creation. Woolf, in the same manner, remains detached from the essay in an impersonal manner, by creating a fictional narrator, though she gives voice to the narrator, and ultimately could think objectively without personal prejudices.

She uses the ‘looking-glass‘ metaphor here-‘ Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and the delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’. So, if she begins to criticize men, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks. She emphasizes the power of money/ inheritance on the freedom of thought, something valuable than the right to vote-‘ Remove the protection from the other sex and expose them to the same activities and exertions, make them soldiers and sailors…..’. Woolf stresses money as a means of personal freedom and thus creativity and the aesthetic ideology is conveyed as metaphors of the brilliant light on the sky as ‘ a fiery fabric flashing with red eyes, a tawny monster roaring with hot breath……’

The narrator is perplexed with the perennial puzzle of why no women wrote a word of that extraordinary literature or why the details about the life of women are completely absent from literature during the Elizabethan period. Woolf uses the metaphor of the spider web to describe the imaginative work needed for fiction, its intricacies, attached as it is to the various points of realities of life. Creating fiction is totally unlike the dropping of a pebble as science may be. The narrator finds a book titled ‘History of England’ by one Professor Trevelyan, in which issues like wife-beating, lack of freedom to choose a husband, marriages made out of family avarice and not personal affection are discussed. He mentions a paradox in which fictional women, Shakespeare’s heroines, for example, were never wanting in personality and character. Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Desdemona, Rosalind….. all of them have burnt like beacons in fiction. Thus a queer, composite individual emerges who has the highest importance in imagination, but worthless in reality, ‘ An odd monster that one made up by reading historians first and poets afterward, a worm winged like an eagle.’ One needs to think prosaically and poetically to conjure up this queer creature. She is a passing shadow, whisking away into the background, concealing, a wink, a laugh, sometimes a tear.

Thinking of an old gentleman, a bishop, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present or future, to have the genius of Shakespeare, she conjures up an imaginative character, Judith, Shakespeare’s sister, with the same genius as himself. The privileges consigned exclusively to the male sex transforms him to the Bard, while she, struggling to surmount the obstacles, is nipped in the bud. Thus she concludes that a genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people except for some rarities sometimes. She mentions Jane Austen, Bronte sisters, Robert Burns as novelists who transcended the many barriers to create fiction. Chastity was something to be guarded, in addition, that anonymity was the preferred mode of escape from slander- Currer Bell, George Eliot, George Sand….. and many others were victims of this inner strife. With this, the narrator asks a pertinent question- what is the state of mind that is propitious to the state of creation?

Though we do not know what Shakespeare, Carlyle, Flaubert or Keats went through while composing their masterpieces, the narrator presumes from the enormous modern literature of confession and self-analysis that ‘to write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty’. Both material circumstances and the physical and psychological environment might have impeded them at their task. “ And mighty poets in their misery dead”- William Wordsworth( Resolution and Independence, stanza 17.

And the obstacles might have been formidable for women writers without a supporting income or a room of her own. The world was indifferent to Keats, Flaubert, but outright hostile to women writers. This presumption and declaration of the intellectual inferiority of the female writers and outright environmental hostility must have ‘lowered her vitality and told profoundly upon her work.’ Nick Greene had said that a woman acting reminded him of a dog dancing. Here, she offers a slice of advice to writers to ignore the criticisms leveled against their works. Still, she maintains that it is the men or women of genius who mind most what is said of them and that it is the nature of an artist to do this. ‘ Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others’.

The actual gravestone text of John Keats reads:

This grave contains all that was mortal, of a young English poet, who, on his death bed, in the bitterness of his heart, at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraved on his tombstone
“HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER.”’

Here, Woolf brings out the light symbolism again. She writes, ‘ the mind of an artist in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him must be incandescent like Shakespeare’s mind. There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.’ The works of Shakespeare do not reveal any personal grudges compared to those of Ben Jonson or Milton. Hence the unimpeded flow of Shakespeare’s poetry. His mind was incandescent. Woolf is at odds with criticism, which dilutes the incandescence according to her. Contemporary feminist and minority literature theorists disagree. They use protest literature to reclaim their voices.

Discussing the freedom of female writers, the narrator mentions about aristocratic women who would take advantage of their comparative freedom and comfort to publish something without the risk of being stamped as a monster or witch. She mentions Lady Winchilsea who wrote poetry during the 17-th century, who was noble by birth and marriage, childless, all fruitful environs for her writings to flourish, still the indignation was palpable in her poems. Alexander Pope or Gay is said to have satirized her as ‘ a bluestocking with an itch for scribbling’. The incandescence in her is consumed by hatred for the opposite sex.  Woolf equally mentions this point for both male and female writers. Another gifted female writer, Dorothy Osborne, out of sense and modesty, wrote letters instead of books. And the narrator discusses the works of Aphra Behn( Oroonoko,  The Rover), which was a turning point in female literature. She, after the death of her husband, wrote to make a living and raise her children.

Aphra Behn thus changed the landscape of female literature and in the later 18-th century women began talking, meeting, writing based on the solid fact that women could be financially independent by making money by writing. ‘ Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for’. Middle-class women began to write. Here, the narrator turns her attention to the four famed female writers- Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and George Eliot. Their masterpieces definitely echo the collective voices of the female writers who came before them like Fanny Burney, Eliza Carter, and Aphra Behn.

She saunters to the section of 19-th century literature by women and wonders why all of them were novels but not poetry, with a few exceptions. Nothing seemed congruous about the four writers mentioned above except for the fact that all wrote novels, all four were childless. A middle-class family in the early 19-th century possessed only a single sitting room and amidst the interruptions cutting short their concentration, it would have been easier to write prose than poetry or play.  Jane Austen is said to have hidden her manuscripts while there were visitors to her house. Their only training was in observing the character and analyzing the emotions, naturally, the prose for fiction came easily to them. Still, they might have been capable of other pursuits like poetry, play, history or biography, could they been given a room of their own. Jane Austen and Shakespeare share the qualities of writing without hate, bitterness, protest or without preaching. In fact, they had consumed all their impediments.

Opening chapter twelve of Jane Eyre, the narrator’s eye gets stuck at the sentence ‘Anybody may blame me who likes’. She wonders what they were blaming Charlotte Bronte for. Laying the book beside Pride and Prejudice, the narrator infers that Charlotte Bronte has more genius in her than Jane Austen, still, it is not being expressed whole and entire as a result of her indignation and rage that deforms and twists her characters by infusing herself into the pages. She reflects on the range of freedom of life circumstances offered to men and even they commit sins, never do they need to seclude them from the righteous or else Tolstoy could scarcely have written ‘War and Peace‘. Life conflicts with something that is not life in a novel. What holds the work together among the readers is its integrity. It is the ‘invisible ink that nature traces on one’s mind, a premonition which these great artists confirm’. This is what makes War and Peace a masterpiece, she concludes. On the other hand novels with bright colors and dashing gestures bring to light only a faint scribble on the mind, a blot over there, a failure that comes to grief somewhere.

The narrator wonders how the sex of the writer interferes with the integrity, how the imagination falters under strain, confusing the insight to distinguish between true and false. Anger was clearly impeding the integrity of Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’. She left it in the midst to attend some personal grievance. Anger tugged her imagination, swerved and deflected it from its path. But, there were many more, ignorance for instance. She draws the portrait of ‘Rochester‘ blindly, in the dark, we feel her fear, a ‘buried rancor smoldering beneath her passion, contracting those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain‘.

And next, the narrator links the difference of value among both sexes, transferred from life to fiction, ad how the critic evaluates the significance of the work according to these. For instance, football and sport are ‘important’ while the feeling of women in a drawing-room, what she does, how she feels is not. Woolf thus vindicates writers like Charlotte Bronte, who had to fend off these barbs by aggression or conciliation, docility or diffidence, anger or emphasis depending on what her temperament dictated. The flaw in her work comes from her head, from the center- ‘ Think of all the women’s novels that lie scattered, like small pock-marked apples in an orchard, about the second-hand book shops of London. It was the flaw in the center that had rotted them. She had altered her values in deference to the opinion of others’. The kind of genius and integrity to ward off the criticism in the midst of a patriarchal society without withering is a commendable feat. Only Jane Austen and Emily Bronte did that. They wrote as women write and not as men write, a feather in their caps. They were deaf to persistent admonitions, pedagogueries, patronizing speeches. She quotes Egerton Brydges, the English bibliographer, and genealogist- ‘female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex’. This sentence was written not in 1828, but in 1928, the narrator stresses. She calls those defiant women novelists, firebrand, to say to themselves that literature is open t everybody. ‘Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no bolt, no lock that you can set upon the freedom of my mind’.

Now, she comes to another difference between men and women writers- the absence of sufficient precedent for women writers and the mind of the two sexes. The pace/ stride of a man’s mind is too unlike her own to use any of his words or style, ‘The ape is too distant to be sedulous’. There is no common sentence ready for use. Thackeray, Dickens, and Balzac created their sentences with their own tint without ceasing to be common property. A man’s sentence is unsuited for women’s use. Charlotte Bronte, a genius, but she fell with clumsy use of the words. Geroge Eliot committed atrocities with them. It was Jane Austen who with her freedom and fullness of expression, shaped the words into her own squares, circles, arcades, and domes. So, with less genius that Charlotte Bronte, she got said more. She could build sentences and not just write. Thus, all the other forms of literature except the novel were shaped and hardened by her male peers by the time she started to write. Only the novel was pliable, young and soft in her hands to be shaped into one that she desired. Woolf laments that poetry was still denied an outlet from women. She hopes for a future where they would compose epics in verse or prose when she will be free to use her limbs to knock them to shape. Woolf herself provides the example by not just copying the Modernist ‘stream of consciousness’ style, but, modifying it into a free indirect discourse in her novel ‘ To The Lighthouse’. One of the great English stylists, she shaped her works with wit, elegance, and focus into natural cut out sentences.

The narrator finally gets to the shelves of contemporary writers, men, and women, she finds that women no longer write solely novels. There are Jane Harrison‘s books on Greek archaeology, Vernon Lee‘s books on aesthetics, Gertrude Bell‘s books on Persia. There are poems, plays, and criticisms, history, biography, and philosophy. She has begun to take writing as an art, something for a living and not solely as a means of self- expression. Here she creates a fictional author, Mary Carmichael who wrote’Life’s Adventure’, her first book. The narrator starts reading and wonders if the author has a pen or a pickaxe in her hand. The sentences lacked the melody of Jane Austen, to read her was like ‘out at sea in an open boat’. Maybe, she was being too conscious of the flowery prose in female literature and wants to provide a superfluity of thorns instead? The sentences and sequences were broken. Then she stopped at the sentence ‘Chloe liked Olivia’ and the immense change struck her. Sometimes women do like women, she thinks and muses how completely Antony and Cleopatra would have been altered if Cleopatra liked Octavia instead of feeling jealous of her. Excepting a few like Diana of the Crossways, in Racine and the Greek tragedies, almost without exception women were shown in relation to men. Even Proust is hampered and partial in his knowledge of women as a woman in her knowledge of men. Carmichael’s female characters like each other, they share a laboratory and are working mothers. So much has changed in the course of years in female literature. Woolf once again uses the light symbolism, of Carmichael lighting a torch in the half-lights and profound shadows inside serpentine caves. The narrator watches curiously as the author captures ‘the unrecorded gestures, unsaid or half said words, which form no more than the shadows of moths on the ceiling when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and colored light of the other sex’. 

The narrator heedlessly starts to praise women as ‘infinitely intricate’. ‘highly developed’ and so forth, but realizes the absence of yardsticks to measure the qualities of a good mother, devotion of a daughter or fidelity of a sister. Yet, greats like Goethe, Carlyle, Cowper, Sterne, Shelley, Voltaire, and Browning have for one reason or other admired, sought out, lived with, confided in, made love to, written of or trusted in women, and not all could be said as platonic. And from these relationships, it was not just flattery, comfort or pleasure that those men sought, but some stimulus for renewal of creative power which only the opposite sex can bestow. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to be a contemplative novelist rather than a naturalist one as she needs to draw a lot of pictures of characters from the drawing-room to the street. Each gender has a blind spot ‘the size of a shilling on the back of their head‘ but through mutual observations, they can gain full enlightenment. The narrator dares the author to go behind the head of the other sex and point out the black spot. Reading further, the narrator compares Carmichael to other authors and notices that she had no love of nature, the fiery imagination, the wild poetry, the brilliant wit or the brooding wisdom of her predecessors. Nevertheless, she had certain advantages which women of far greater gift lacked— fear and hatred to men had gone, or if present in traces were shown in a slight exaggeration of the joy of freedom, a tendency to be caustic or satirical. She had that capacious sensibility that brought buried things to light and she mastered to write as a woman without conscious of being a woman. The narrator hopes for Carmichael to do her best in the test, to ignore the bishops, deans, professors, patriarchs, and pedagogues warning and shouting at her, to not stop or curse, to not laugh or fumble, imploring her to think of jumping over the fence and she flew like bid over the fence. But, there were many fences beyond the first one, and though her staying power was doubtful, she did her best considering she was no genius, but an unknown girl writing her first novel without a room of her own or five hundred bucks a year income. Give her these and in another hundred years, she will be a poet.

In the final chapter, the narrator discusses  ‘the unity of mind‘, a hypothesis that she puts forth, the mind having both male and female components in both sexes and which need to be united in harmony in order to attain satisfaction and happiness. She refers to Coleridge‘s saying that ‘ a great mind is androgynous‘. She infers that a purely masculine or feminine mind could not create. By the term androgynous Coleridge had meant a resonant, porous mind transmitting emotion without impediment, naturally creative, incandescent and undivided. Shakespeare’s mind could be taken as an example, but, it is difficult to say what he thought of women. She thinks of how much harder it is to attain a state of mind now than before, that does not think specially or separately of sex. The books by the men on women on the shelves is an example of this. She blames the Suffrage campaign for this, one which roused self-assertion in men by challenging them. The response has been excessive since they had never been challenged before.

She reads a novel by a well-respected male writer, written clearly, strongly, using a free mind, but balks at the self- assertive ‘I’ that pervades the novel. This feeling of superiority, that hides the other sex in its shadow impedes the creative energy of the author and he is protesting equality of the other sex by asserting his own superiority, The narrator hints that Elizabethan literature might have been different if the women’s movement had begun in the sixteenth century instead of the nineteenth. Thus, the author writing with only the male side of the brain will never be understood by female readers, the sentences fall plump to the ground. But with Coleridge’s sentences, the mind explodes and gives birth to all kinds of ideas and this sort of writing has the secret of perpetual life. She notices that the works of Kipling and Galsworthy cannot find in them the fountain of perpetual life, they lack the suggestive power and cannot penetrate deep inside the mind.

Woolf stresses the necessity of financial independence in creativity, the symbolic five hundred bucks a year and a lock on the door for the power to contemplate. She quotes the Cornish writer, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch next. ‘ Poetical genius bloweth where it listeth and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth’. ‘ The poor poet has not in these days nor has had for 400 years, a dog’s chance…..a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom’. Intellectual freedom depends on material things and poetry depends on intellectual freedom.  Of all the great poets of the last few hundred years only Keats, Browning and Rossetti had not attended university. Of these three poets, only Keats was not well- to do and he died young. Women had even less intellectual freedom than sons of Athenian slaves. And women have always been poor.

Thus, Woolf makes her case on stressing on the material aspects of life- a room of one’s own and 500 bucks a year- for intellectual freedom. She urges women to write and read. And she explains that when she asks women to earn money and have a room of one’s own, she means for women to live in reality. She exhorts women to utilize the privileges of education, to bear fewer children, to escape the common sitting room and write what one thinks is right. Judith would come again ‘if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worthwhile’.

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Book review ‘ Jerusalem The Biography’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

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“Like a snowy mountain glittering in the sun”

–  Flavius Josephus, the Romano-Jewish scholar, and historian.

                            A casual observer could be forgiven for being drawn into the dragnet of bias when it comes to broaching and expounding on the subject matter of Israeli- Palestinian quagmire. Responsible journalism and authorship, though ostensibly non-partisan and unprejudiced is by no means so as the evidence suggests. That leaves us with very few options for digging deeper into the marshlands of history and collating the layers beneath to prepare the ground of conceivability in our conscience.

                            The beliefs of historical determinism and fatalism, more often than not, rear their ugly head in almost every causal analysis of the conflict in spite of the contrarian disposition of the rational mind. Not even a page of this book could be flipped by without contemplating retrospectively of a more lucid outcome, had the powers that be shown a speck of farsightedness or a morsel of horse sense about a region that in itself had been tangled in the cobweb of politics, religion, ethnicity and pincered between the grasp of bloodthirsty warlords and religiously evangelical zealots. The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement which unabashedly apportioned the Middle East map among British and French stemmed from the ‘ divide and rule’ dogma followed by the empire, the repercussions of which echoes to the present day, albeit in the form of protracted quasi-occupation in Afghanistan or Iraq before, by the West. Lessons will never be learned it seems, after imbibing Jerusalem’s travails.

                      Though the book offers a prolonged read and is steeped in history, titles and chronology Montefiore has done justice to his subject by dissecting Jerusalem right from the roots, eruditely, not in the least exhibiting any sort of pedantry or pomposity. Palpability of the spirit of Jerusalem and perspicuity of the ghosts of the past sauntering through the narrow alleys of Old Jerusalem is a haunting experience that lingers on. From the Maccabees to the present day rulers, the list of conquerors and occupiers seem never-ending, yet the provenance of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions, the seat of religious secularism, the cynosure of the world presents herself as a desolate sweetheart whom the lovers have forsaken.

                       The weightiness of the issue and the two-state solution on the cards endows a special significance to the book now than ever before. Montefiore’s pedigree and his ancestor’s role in carving up a Jewish state and propounding Zionism have been distinctly documented. I just loved the myriad footnotes which by themselves could be collated into a compendium of sorts. The sheer magnitude of research that has been put through by the author is unbelievable.

                     A magnificent tour de force, scholarly penned, bluntly chronicled, holistically viewed and meticulously researched. An absolutely enlightening tome.

                                                                                                          Copyright © deepanairrp

Review on ‘After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness?: My Encounters With Kurdistan’ by Jonathan C. Randal

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A candid, in-depth and incisive sketch on the geopolitics of Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria, expounding their strife with national and international actors in carving out a separate entity of Kurdistan.

I was intensely drawn to the plight of Kurds during the course of reading the extensive reportage in print media for the past few years. That they had been hunted, used and abused at every possible opportunity, hoodwinked by their one- time confidantes like the Shah of Iran, inveigled at pivotal moments by their most trusted ally and advisor, the US, and most of all, that they had once been strange bedfellows with their arch enemy Saddam Hussein, seemed something beyond me. Thus began my search for an unbiased account of these mountain people and I happened to chance upon this book during an exhibition. Randal, a W.P correspondent, who owing to the nature of his job has had a first-hand grip on their history and geopolitics and had been endowed with numerous windows of opportunity in getting to know plebeian and patrician alike, has taken great pains in getting down to the nuts and bolts of Kurdish issue during his wartime reporting. 

One ought to be patient right through, that’s the only catch, yet worth the read!