False Dichotomies


Archive for the 'Book Reviews' Category

The Emperor of Lies (Book Review)

“In an age of Holocaust denial, Holocaust fiction sounds like it should be an oxymoron. Why add to people’s doubts by fictionalising that which could never have been made up? And yet, just like Hollywood directors, novelists continue to look to the Shoah for inspiration. Because of this, and given our embarrassing lack of access to translated foreign fiction, one can safely assume that most English-speaking readers would never have heard of leading Swedish novelist Steve Sem-Sandberg (who doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page) if his latest novel, The Emperor of Lies, wasn’t a doorstopper that takes us to the heart of the second largest Jewish ghetto in Poland, in the city of Lodz.” Read on at Cartoon Kippah


Embellishing the Myth: Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child

The critical praise for The Stranger’s Child was probably inevitable, and in many ways reflects the ecstatic reception given to Jonathan Franzen’s similarly uninteresting epic, Freedom, in the United States. Both novelists’ previous works – The Line of Beauty and The Corrections respectively – were superior, and The Line of Beauty was a worthy winner of the 2004 Booker Prize. But one acknowledged classic should not mean a free pass for subsequent works; particularly as The Stranger’s Child is so obviously inferior to its predecessor. Read more

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What would you do? Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas

The millions killed during the Partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan can be described as victims of a grass-roots genocide. Their slaughter was not ordered by politicians or warlords, but was the result of the brutality of their neighbours, caught up in the frenzy produced by the partition. The perpetrators were not brought before a war crimes tribunal, nor were the bereaved and dispossessed survivors compensated for their losses. It may be difficult to stomach, but today this is maybe for the best. The last thing an ever tense Indian-Pakistani relationship needs is a reopening of the wounds of the original division. But it remains astonishing how little a Western world brought up on the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide and the Balkans knows about the sheer medieval horror of the violence on the subcontinent in 1947.

Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (the word has been translated from Sanskrit as ‘indifference’), written in Hindi and translated into English by the author himself, is perhaps the greatest of all Partition novels. In an unnamed town, presumably somewhere in the Punjab, a shadowy Muslim politican called Murad Ali pays a sweeper named Nathu to kill a pig. The act is described in excruciating detail (“The pig was sniffing at the rind of a watermelon close to its forelegs, its bloodshot eyes blinking and its little tail swishing.”), by contrast with the rest of the novel, which unfolds at tremendous speed. Nathu kills the pig and delivers it to Murad Ali. The next morning, the pig is found on the steps of a mosque. Mayhem ensues, while Nathu withdraws to the background, reappearing every so often as the moral and emotional centre of the novel, bemoaning his actions before being brutally dismissed from the story in one throwaway line in the final chapters.  Read more


Far from Failing: Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan

The popular view of Pakistan is that it’s a failed state in the making, a Somalia in South Asia. It’s the place where Daniel Pearl was beheaded, where leaders are regularly assassinated, and the Taliban are on the verge of taking over. It is the dark opposite of secular India, an Islamic ‘Land of the Pure’. In his new primer on the country, Anatol Lieven takes issue with this hysteria. His thesis is that Pakistan is “a hard country”, but far from failing. Read more

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