Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Book Review: City of Wisdom and Blood (1977) by Robert Merle; The Eyes of Venice (2012) by Alessandro Barbero

Once upon a time I didn't like historical fiction, or perhaps it's better to say I simply ignored it. I reasoned that if I wanted to learn about period x in history, why not read a history book? Far better, I thought, to read a novel that was written in the time it describes, rather than some contemporary writer's idea of what life might have been like in the long ago and far away. And then after reading a long and laudatory piece on Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series of novels set in the Napoleonic wars, I decided to take the plunge into historical fiction. I haven't looked back.

City of Wisdom and Blood is the second in a 13-volume series set in France during the religious wars of the 16th century. The first volume introduced the de Sioracs, a recently ennobled Protestant family living in the Perigord region. This volume follows Pierre and Samson, the youngest sons of the family, as they move to Montpellier to study medicine. Merle's grand theme in this novel is the problem of religious intolerance. Catholics and Protestants are always itching to have at each other, although both can agree it's equally enjoyable to persecute Jews, atheists and, of course, witches. Merle's theme is religion, but his muse is Errol Flynn. Yes, the swashbuckling dial is set to 11 here, and some of the dialogue sounds as though it comes directly from Captain Blood or The Adventures of Robin Hood. And the plentiful episodes of shagging feel like they've been inspired by the memoirs of Casanova. If this makes the novel sound schlocky, it isn't. Merle knows his history and makes it live and breathe like few writers have done, and he definitely knows how to show his readers a good time. This series is just being translated into English and the publishers appear to be putting out two volumes a year, with the third coming out in June.

Alessandro Barbero's novel is set in Venice and the eastern Mediterranean in the 16th century. It's just as entertaining as Merle's, but Barbero is a more sober storyteller. There's no swinging from chandeliers and landing on banqueting tables with a hearty, hands-on-hips laugh. This story follows Michele and Bianca, working-class newlyweds who are separated by bad luck and evil intentions. Michele flees Venice on board a galley, and Bianca, having no idea what's happened to her husband, begins a succession of menial jobs to keep body and soul together. Barbero is as good as Merle when it comes to evoking a distant time and place, but where he differs is in his narrative style. If Merle is a swashbuckler, Barbero leans towards melodrama. His separated lovers are eventually reunited, but only after a series of very fortuitous coincidences. Where Barbero earns extra credit is for his depiction of Bianca's struggles after she's left to her own devices. It's normal in this kind of story for the man to go off and have all kind of adventures while the woman waits patiently at home, her boredom only enlivened by the occasional unwanted suitor. Barbero divides the focus of his story in half, and uses the Bianca sections to show the hardships endured by the poorest women of  Venice. Michele sees the world and has some manly adventures, but Bianca's story is equally dramatic and tense. She even has a brief affair, while poor, old Michele remains chaste throughout the several years they're apart. Now there's a role reversal.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Book Review: On the Laps of Gods (2008) by Robert Whitaker

On the evening of September 30, 1919, a group of black sharecroppers gathered in a church in southeastern Arkansas. They were there to join a union that would represent them in a legal tussle with local plantation owners, who had been shamelessly defrauding them for years. The sharecroppers had been warned by both the police and plantation owners that any kind of union activity would not be received well, which in the context of the times meant violent suppression. For this reason some of the sharecroppers were armed, and, sure enough, after darkness fell a car stopped near the church and a group of white men got out. They opened fire on the church and some of the sharecroppers returned fire, killing one of the attackers. So began one of the worst, and most unknown, atrocities in U.S. history. Over the next three days white posses, policemen, and local army units combed through the woods and fields near Elaine, Arkansas, seeking to put down what they called an "uprising." At least 170 blacks were shot and killed, including women and children, and it's very possible that the total death toll was higher by several hundreds. Five whites were killed, at least one thanks to "friendly" fire.

No nation likes to acknowledge its dirty little secrets, especially when those secrets involve mass murder. Japan is largely silent on its crimes in China during WWII; Britain glosses over famines it did nothing about in India; Turkey ignores its genocide of Armenians; and Italy doesn't talk about its use of poison gas in Ethiopia in the 1930s. It's a rare nation that doesn't have a blood-soaked skeleton in its closet. Popular history and culture in the U.S. has done a poor job chronicling the atrocities committed against black Americans in the Jim Crow era, which lasted nearly a century after the end of the Civil War. What On the Laps of Gods does is give us a sharp picture of the all-encompassing repression experienced by blacks in the Jim Crow period.

The massacre in and around Elaine, Arkansas, was horrific, but as Robert Whitaker makes crystal clear, it was simply an extra-large example of what was happening to blacks throughout the South. Lynchings in the early decades of the 20th century had become a spectator sport, extensively publicized in advance and attended by thousands. The word "lynching" doesn't begin to describe the horrors that went on at these events. To put it mildly, condemned witches in the middle ages received better treatment than blacks did at the hands of Southern mobs. And for every lynching or pogrom that's made it into the historical record, hundreds, if not thousands, of others have been almost forgotten. Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Elliot Jaspin, a book that should be read in tandem with this one, describes how dozens and dozens of black communities were erased from history by white mob violence in this era.

The killings at Elaine weren't just about racism. Blacks were cheap, almost free, labour in the South. Decades of Jim Crow legislation had created a situation where blacks could be held in debt servitude, and any attempt by blacks to redress their situation through the courts were ignored, tossed out, or met with violence. The Elaine massacre was as much about capitalism vs. labour as it was racism. And this bloody battle against organized labour wasn't confined to black sharecroppers. In 1921 in Logan County, Kentucky, 80-100 white coal miners were murdered by police and mine guards when they tried to organize a union (read The Company Town by Hardy Green for more info on this episode).

The second half of Whitaker's book covers the legal battle to free the 12 black men sentenced to death for their role in the "uprising." The lawyer in charge of the case was Scipio Africanus Jones. Jones was born into slavery, and in true American fashion he pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a respected lawyer in Little Rock, Arkansas. He faced a forest of legal and social hurdles in defending his clients, but he eventually got his case argued in front of the Supreme Court of the United States...and won. It was a precedent-setting case, and Whitaker does a masterful job of making the legal intricacies comprehensible for those of us who got our training in law from watching Rumpole of the Bailey.

One reason the history of white on black violence has largely been swept under the rug is that it interferes with the narrative being offered by rightist politicians. In the Fox News/Tea Party scheme of things, the black economic underclass finds itself in that position due to its own fecklessness, choice of poor role models, a lack of initiative, and reliance on government "handouts". Racism has no place in this narrative because it undermines the philosophy of social Darwinism that acts as a screen for contemporary racism. The issues raised in this book still resonate today. The Black Lives Matter movement, which is nothing more than some peaceful protests and a hashtag, has been greeted with cries of horror by the right and characterized as a "hate group." This is remarkably similar to what happened to Elaine's sharecroppers when they began organizing. Plantation owners greeted the idea of a sharecroppers union with accusations of bolshevism and feverish fantasies about blacks plotting to exterminate all the whites in the area. The sharecroppers' fight against economic exploitation by plantation owners is mirrored in what the residents of Ferguson, Mo., experienced at the hands of the civic authorities. Ferguson is where the Black Lives Matter movement came to national attention after the police shooting of Michael Brown, and the county in which it sits has for years been using the criminal justice system and its fines as a kind of taxation by incarceration. It's debt servitude under a new name.

On the Laps of Gods is a superb work of historical research that weaves together multiple issues and characters without getting bogged down in the details. But what might be most remarkable about Whitaker's book is the deafening silence that greeted it upon publication. A Google search shows that it got a review in the New York Times, which is all well and good, but beyond that, nothing. It's a testament to how sensitive the issue of white on black violence is that except for the NY Times, no other major publication reviewed it. It's that silence that truly shows the need for Black Lives Matter.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: The Girl Who Wasn't There (2013) by Ferdinand von Schirach

Crime fiction is often divided into two opposing camps: the noir and the cosy. The noir world is filled with vicious criminals, unspeakable crimes, gritty environments, forensic horrors, and detectives who are often only slightly less unpleasant than the criminals they're pursuing. The cosy universe has bloodless murders, charming and/or amusingly eccentric sleuths, leafy and pleasant locales, and killers who are often almost as nice as their pursuers. I'm coming to believe, however, that noir crime fiction is, in fact, as cosy as the crime novels featuring cats and spinsters and dead vicars. The dictionary defines "cosy" as something that provides a feeling of comfort, and comfort can be used to describe a pleasant routine.

A lot of noir fiction provides a comfortable routine for the reader. The crimes and criminals and settings of these novels may be harrowing, raw, and described in the most explicit terms, but there's a reliable routine to them: the detectives (private or official) will have their usual vices to contend with (booze, pills), they'll still be brooding over that great tragedy in their life (death of spouse/child), they'll have a brief affair with one or two attractive members of the opposite sex, and they'll spend some time name-checking their favourite musicians/books/films/single malt whiskies. And of course there will always be a sense of closure to each novel. The bad guy will be caught or killed, although the cost may be high and there'll probably be a sense that justice hasn't been completely served. Really, any crime fiction series with a recurring central character ends up becoming a "cosy."

There are, however, a few authors I'd describe as truly noir, and to separate them from the rest of the herd I'll call them writers of Brutalist noir. Like the architectural style I've poached the name from, writers such as Massimo Carlotto, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Dominique Manotti, and Pascal Garnier write novels that make no concessions to comfort. These writers specialize in characters and stories that are raw, blunt, and unsubtle in their purpose. Like your local unloved architectural landmark from the 1970s, the Brutalist noir novel stands out by being the literary equivalent of an eyesore. These writers get in your face, step on your toes, knee you in the groin, and they absolutely love to kick cats.

Toronto's ultra-Brutalist Robarts Library, also known as Fort Book
Ferdinand von Schirach has joined the Brutalist club. The Girl Who Wasn't There has some of the flavour of an Italian giallo film thanks to its main character, Sebastian, the slightly odd son of an upper class German family who becomes a famous photographer/installation artist and the only suspect in the apparent murder of a young woman. The heart of the novel is its depiction of Sebastian's upbringing by an unloving mother and a father obsessed with hunting. Schirach is ruthless in showing the flaws and peculiarities of this trio. It's typical of Brutalist writers that their attention to detail in characterization makes their characters almost wholly unlikable. Schirach & Co. seem to have discovered a truth, or at least believe, that all people, no matter how innocuous or benign on the surface, are in essence an aggregation of prejudices, fears, petty hatreds, and unsavoury habits.

Most of this short novel (slimness being another feature of Brutalist noir) is a character study of Sebastian and his parents. Once the focus shifts to the mystery element of the story, the novel suffers a bit from the introduction of Konrad Biegler, a defence lawyr who's brought in to represent Sebastian at his murder trial. Biegler is a rather conventional character (grumpy but brilliant lawyer) and his presence combined with a story resolution that's flat and confusing, left me a bit disappointed. The ending wasn't a deal breaker for me, but it keeps Schirach out of the top echelon of Brutalist noir writers.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Review: The Mysteries of Paris (1842) by Eugene Sue

There should be a literary dating site to match up readers seeking a long-term reading commitment with novels that suit their preferences. A website like eHarmony or Lavalife that lets you know if your tastes and interests are suitable for a serious relationship with door stoppers such as War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or the collected works of James Patterson. The Mysteries of Paris is over 1,300 pages of melodrama, sentimentality, granite-jawed heroism, pathos, unrepentant villainy, and strident social commentary. Like many 19th century novels it began life as a newspaper serial, running in 150 installments in a Paris newspaper. According to the novel's introduction, Mysteries was probably the biggest bestseller of all time, and it inspired a score of copycat versions set in other cities and countries, and also influenced the writing of Les Miserables and The Count of Monte Cristo. This is what made me read it. I'm a sucker for a novel with a dating profile that reveals it's influenced a host of other writers.

There are a battalion of characters in the novel, but the two that count are Rodolphe and Songbird. The former is a wealthy German count who likes to skulk around Paris posing as a labourer in order to right wrongs and punish evildoers, while the latter is a teenage prostitute with the soul of saint. The story begins with Rodolphe rescuing Songbird (also called Fleur de Mairie) from her life on the streets. It turns out that the two have a connection both are unaware of, but before that is revealed, Rodolphe and Songbird have to battle against the plots and schemes of characters with names such as the Owl, Red-Arm, She-Wolf, the Schoolmaster, and the Gimp. If this sounds like a cabal of Batman villains, the comparison is a valid one. Rodolphe may be the first superhero. He's wealthy, he's unbeatable in a fight, he goes about in disguise, and he fights bad guys just for the hell of it. Now who does that sound like? And there's no denying that the writing and characterization isn't much more sophisticated than what's found in most comic books.

I probably shouldn't have invested the time required to read all 1,300+ pages of The Mysteries of Paris, but the plotting was hard to resist. Eugene Sue wasn't a master of prose, but he did an amazing job of weaving multiple plots and sub-plots together without losing the thread. And he can't be faulted on the bad guy front. Nineteenth century literature's villains are usually far more memorable than the heroes and heroines, and this novel is no exception. The novel's most powerful scene is actually shared by three of its villains, the Owl, the Schoolmaster, and the Gimp, as one of the three is slowly murdered in a pitch black cellar. Sue also creates a couple of comic relief characters that Charles Dickens would have approved of. Of course the downside to many novels of this era is that the heroes and heroines are, well, so noble and pure and sweet (with extra whipped cream on top), that they fully engage the reader's gag reflex every time they step on the scene. All is not lost, however; Sue brings to his novel a fiery anger at the way the poor are treated by the state and capitalism, although he doesn't use words like "state" or "capitalism." Where Dickens often merely pitied the poor in his novels and begged for more charity for them, Sue turns parts of his novel into agitprop for structural changes in society to benefit the working classes. It's not a call to arms or The Communist Manifesto, but it's a bracing change from Sue's contemporaries. Also, it's a damn sight better than Les Miserables, which now seems like the work of a plagiarist.