Review- Keefe, “Say Nothing”

Patrick Keefe, “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” (2019) – Is it fair to say this book gives the Troubles the true crime treatment? Yes and no. From the cheap seats, it looks to me that true crime has been upscaled some in recent years- going from supermarket paperbacks to high production value podcasts and nice hardcovers like my copy of “Say Nothing.” How much the works themselves have changed with this gentrification is for somebody who knows more to say. But it seems a lot of elements remain the same- the titillating intimacy of certain types of crime, the pseudo-literary psychologizing, using crimes to help define a given place and vice versa. Often enough, true crime attempts to hook the reader by presenting a new version of the crime at odds with the official story.

You get all of the above in “Say Nothing.” In many respects, the war in the North of Ireland is perfectly suited for this sort of treatment. To be way cynical for a minute, it presumably helps that it took place among white people who spoke English- with sexy accents even! One wonders how well a similar story set in that other capital of late twentieth century urban guerrilla mayhem, Beirut, would sell stateside… More generously to both author and readership, this long, slow, grinding war took place in a small place, among relatively few people- Belfast had (and has) something like three hundred thousand inhabitants (Beirut is roughly the same, fwiw). The action of the war involved heavy use of retail terror- acts of violence targeting individuals but directed at whole communities. This lends itself to the sort of individuated reconstruction of crimes and the broken lives around them that true crime thrives on. More systematic work of the same kind — the Phoenix Program stalking and killing National Liberation Front infrastructure, or for that matter, NLF guerrillas assassinating enemy officials — just don’t have the same kind of pathos.

I’m probably making it sound like I don’t like this book or have a lot of big criticisms of it. Wrong on both counts! I think part of me is interested in the literature on insurgency and counterinsurgency so am looking at it from that angle… AND the book has been so talked up it’s a tempting target…

But on its own, “Say Nothing” is a quite well told story of the whole universe of violence, complicity, and silence surrounding the murder of Jean McConville, a mother of ten disappeared by the IRA in 1972. To tell the story, Keefe tells something like the whole story of the Troubles, the early parts of which include the murder itself and the latter parts the extended coverup and seeming impossibility of getting justice for McConville’s slaying, or even knowing what justice would look like.

The bare facts are unspooled across hundreds of pages of background about the Troubles (which basically plays fair pool, from what I can tell, though like everyone else I have my own biases- against the British imperial state and in favor of a united socialist Irish republic), the lives of McConville and her kids (generally ranging from gloomy to fucked), details about the peace process, eventually getting into how Keefe got the sources, and so on. These bare facts appear to be this: the Belfast Brigade of the IRA got it in its head that Jean McConville was an informant. IRA fighters abducted her from her apartment and no one saw her alive again. In all likelihood, she was shot by a team composed of Brendan “Dark” Hughes, Dolours Price, and Marian Price. All of them either died before they could be charged with the crime or were not charged. Also not charged was Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, one of the architects of peace in the North, whose whole post-guerrilla career rode on him denying what everyone knows- that he was an IRA commander and likely green-lit McConville.

The question of whether or not McConville was an informer is probably the least interesting question, on its own- the evidence isn’t strong but the British peppered Belfast so thickly with informants as to justify paranoia. What makes it interesting to me is the dynamics of ingroup suspicion. The IRA and the DSA are pretty dissimilar in most respects, but the social dynamics of small groups, especially of radicals, seem familiar. Someone suggested McConville was an informer; details, like an unlikely handheld radio nobody ever saw, are elaborated (passive voice intentional); soon it just becomes operating common sense. How many times have we seen that happen with one suggestion or another in radical circles? Everyone is too busy to chase down and confirm or disconfirm every rumor, and there were a lot of informants (and are a lot of harassers/careerists/entryists/whatever we’re on the lookout for now). It doesn’t help that the people most likely to want to sort this kind of thing out are often the last people you want to do it- as in the case of the IRA’s “Nutting Squad” (heh, heh), which was run by someone who was both a psychopath and an informant himself… he disappeared into something like witness protection, shielded by the Brits to this day, by the by.

Anyway, personal relevance aside, Keefe does an impressive job of marshaling a wide array of information into a package of elegant tale-telling. We get the full story of McConville, her family, those accused of killing her. Boston College plays an important and ignominious supporting role- they sponsored a project to collect paramilitary recollections under promises of iron-clad secrecy but with no real protections once the British police came knocking. Another associate from school days, British counterinsurgency guru Frank Kitson, shows up, (re)-introducing the death squad to Ireland, and it’s always good to see him, as in “good to know his proximate location at any given time.”

While Keefe delivers the goods — murder, pathos, some shoeleather detective work putting together who did the deed — he also makes a point through the way the book is constructed. In a situation like the North of Ireland, context is everything. You can’t understand one of the killings, in any of its particulars, without trying to understand that vast context. He even does a good job of getting across the complexities whilst avoiding pathologizing the Irish as possessing some special psychosis for murderous grudges. That’s more than you can expect from a book on the Troubles! All told, fine work. ****’

Review- Keefe, “Say Nothing”

Review- Vargas Llosa, “The Feast of the Goat”

Mario Vargas Llosa, “The Feast of the Goat” (2000) (translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman) – “The Feast of the Goat” apparently belongs to a Latin American subgenre of “dictatorship novels,” which makes sense. More than any of its particular viewpoint characters, the main character of the book is the dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina over the Dominican Republic from the thirties to the sixties. Trujillo and his regime were like a parody of the caudillo figure and caudillismo. He renamed one of the oldest Spanish cities in the Americas, Santo Domingo, Ciudad Trujillo after himself; he instituted a cult of his family, even as his brothers and sons proved to be worthless playboys and thugs; he took part personally in the destruction of dissidents and the humiliation of members of his inner circle, most notoriously by seducing/raping the wives and daughters of both associates and opponents alike. There’s a waft of macho oversexedness around the whole thing, diplomats chosen at least in part due to their international playboy credentials, etc., though it’s worth noting the two literary sources I have on the Trujillato are Vargas Llosa and Junot Diaz- both somewhat hierophantical men. It’d be interesting to get other perspectives.

Either way, Vargas Llosa draws the reader into (his version of) the logic of the Trujillato. Like dictatorships generally do, this one ran on complicity. Trujillo had something on everyone in the elite, some hook of interest, and kept the masses on side through bread and circuses, the latter including the periodical humiliation of those in the regime itself. In chapters dedicated to the men who would eventually end the Trujillato by ending Trujillo himself, we see the crises of conscience even dedicated opponents felt, from religious scruples to knowledge of how much they owed Trujillo personally.

The other chapters are told from the perspective of Trujillo himself and of a woman, Urania, a daughter of a Trujillo flunky. She left the Dominican Republic as a child during Trujillo’s last year and came back in the nineties. As Trujillo goes through his last day and Urania explains to her family why she abandoned the Republic, the two stories come together, I don’t want to say predictably but congruously. These are both the most affecting chapters and the ones where Vargas Llosa’s peculiar take on dictatorship comes out the most.

Vargas Llosa wrote this decades into his neoliberal turn, after disappointments with Castro and the terror of Sendero Luminosa drove him from his youthful leftism. And the Trujillo dictatorship, with its nitty gritty personalistic terror elements, fits with the essentially apolitical picture of dictatorship Vargas Llosa paints. There are references to the anticommunism and racism (mostly against Haitians) that animated the Trujillato, but in the end it’s about Trujillo and his manhood running roughshod over a whole country- essentially apolitical, or maybe that’s what politics is in Vargas Llosa’s telling. This extends to Trujillo’s very last day, where he goes to his death due to his inability to impose his manhood, in the most middle-aged-male-writer’s-version-of-events way possible, on young Urania (though he was quite capable of traumatizing her mercilessly). Live by the dick, die by the dick, I suppose- though something tells me the Americans didn’t support Trujillo all that time for his bedroom exploits. That was because he was a reliable anticommunist, and they withdrew that support when he refused to play well with others in Washington’s anticommunist orbit.

That said, this is still a great novel, technically accomplished in an unobtrusive way with the way Vargas Llosa ties the various narrative strains together. Put it in the category of politically-questionable classics. *****

Review- Vargas Llosa, “The Feast of the Goat”

Review- Burckhardt, “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”

Jacob Burckhardt, “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” (1860) (translated from the German by S.G.C. Middlemore) – Do they even think there was a Renaissance anymore? I know referring to the “Dark Ages” is a big no-no amongst the medievalists I’ve known. I guess there could still be a relatively value-neutral “rebirth” of classical learning even if you reject the notion that the times before were especially dark and benighted… anyway, people still read Jacob Burckhardt’s history of the Italian Renaissance over a hundred fifty years later, or in any event Harvard Book Store keeps it in stock.

It’s a worthwhile endeavor even for an artistic philistine like me. Burckhardt was one of the progenitors of art history and of cultural history, the original version before theory-inflected cultural history 2.0 got its start in the late twentieth century. I don’t know nineteenth century historiography as well as I might, but Burckhardt seems to stand alone in his perspective: rigorously evidence-based, but free from the heavy systematizing of his historian brethren to the north in Germany (Burckhardt was Swiss). Matters unfolded according to a logic, but it was its own logic, if that makes sense, not that of a dialectic process or racial imperatives or the like.

But not unlike the other historians of the time, Burckhardt roots a lot in the state. Or, in Renaissance Italy’s case, the lack thereof; between foreign occupiers, Papal fecklessness, and city-states ruled by self-made tyrants and unstable republics, there wasn’t the same sort of emerging proto-state you got in England, France, and Spain (how Germany fits in to this scheme is an open question). Moreover, while religion as ritual continued to maintain its hold, religion as dogma and organizing mental principle was weakened both by the lack of a central state to enforce it and by the manifest self-interest and corruption of the Papacy. When the Pope is just another rival power-player, that tends to dampen his authority a touch. If Italy didn’t establish its own Protestantism, its because its energies were engaged elsewhere, and by the time Protestantism came about in Germany, the Spanish were able to firmly establish the Counter-Reformation in the Italian peninsula.

But above it all was the rediscovery of classical antiquity, as a model for art and for life- indeed, as a model for making life art in all of its aspects, from courtly conversation to mercenary warfare. This is what Burckhardt saw as the central result of the chaos reigning in Italy between 1350 and 1550- an exhilarating freedom from long-standing medieval arrangements in life and thought that produced much of what we think of as modern. Most spectacularly, Burckhardt claims the modern individual — self-contained, self-seeking, defined by their own traits instead of corporate ones, and living according to their own lights — first emerged en masse in Renaissance Italy. It was these individuals that brought about the flowering of art and culture that made the Renaissance a high point in civilization to those who thought/think in those terms.

I’m not sure what to make of this thesis. In some respects, it’s shockingly advanced, prefiguring theorists of the development of the self ala Foucault a century ahead of time. I’m not sure I buy the history- if anything, the Italians of the Renaissance were almost too individualistic to really be a model the modern subject, defined as they are by so many larger structural forces. But it’s a bravura concept nevertheless. It’s possible to get lost in the names and references to works of art (I had an illustrated version that broke apart at the spine, necessitating a visit to the bookstore for a new, non-illustrated copy) but the work retains its vitality. ****’

Review- Burckhardt, “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy”

Review- Haldeman, “The Forever War”

Joe Haldeman, “The Forever War” (1974) – You have to be careful with science fiction picked out by literary gatekeepers. Sometimes they’ll try to convince you that Ray Bradbury is a great scifi writer, which even Martin Prince knows is bunk. Other times you’ll see the Library of America lionize Philip K. Dick with a big rollout of his novels, which was quite welcome. Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War” began life as an Iowa Writer’s Workshop story and my copy features praise from Junot Diaz as well as an oddly-worded endorsement from Stephen King; none of these are great signs. The title itself has become a commonplace, a term for the War on Terror after journalist Dexter Filkins filched the phrase for a book of his own.

But I am pleased to report that “The Forever War” “checks out.” It begins with adherence to some simple premises: physics and military life are defined by certain constants. In physics, that’s the speed of light and relativity; in military life, boredom, terror, thoughtless chains of command and obedience. Haldeman plays out the combination of these constants with the scifi ur-trope of interstellar war with rigor and verve.

William Mandella, the narrator, was born in the seventies and sent to the space war against the alien Taurans in the nineties, but soon enough such simple temporal denotations prove insufficient. Spaceships travel through “collapsar” portals at relativistic speeds- Mandella and his buddies age a few months but years, decades, eventually centuries go by to the “objective observers” living on Earth and the rest of human society. This brings a new spin to the age-old quandaries of reacclimating to civilian society. Mandella comes back to an Earth overpopulated (this is seventies scifi after all, gotta have some overpopulation) and crime-ridden, eventually hops forward a few centuries after another collapsar jaunt to find nearly-mandatory homosexuality! What’s a guy to do?

Well, Mandella mostly stoically rolls with the punches and reserves judgment. Except for the the military hierarchy- that gets some judgment for being ignorant, tone-deaf, and sneaky, getting Mandella and his lover MaryGay to reenlist in the war through various designs. There’s some funny early parts where the military, presumably reacting to the changes of the sixties and seventies, encourages soldiers to curse at the officers ritualistically, to sleep with each other (this is a coed fighting force) and smoke weed, but that’s all just cosmetics over the eternal reality of the military. The fighting with the Taurans gets across the boredom-terror dichotomy veterans so often refer to, and there’s no glory to be had in this space-suited combat across kilometers with a foe who is deadly but whose heart doesn’t seem to be in it. In the end, the war was a big misunderstanding- one is tempted to say “like most wars” but that might be giving people too much credit.

Haldeman is a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat, and it’s been argued that “The Forever War” belongs in the canon of Vietnam War literature… I’m ambivalent about that- would “Lord of the Rings” belong in WWI literature? But either way an interesting question about an interesting book. ****’

Review- Haldeman, “The Forever War”

Review- Whitman, “Hitler’s American Model”

James Whitman, “Hitler’s American Model: the United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law” (2017) – This book has a funny tone. Whitman, a prominent legal scholar, acts shocked and sickened by the very idea that anything American might have influenced Nazi Germany’s policies. He continually braces the reader to prepare themselves for the revelations he has in store. I don’t know- is it that weird of an idea that Hitler took inspiration from America? Maybe I’m just jaded or have just read too much about fascism to be shocked by that kind of thing anymore.

The warnings also serve to pad out this slim volume. When I think of American influence on Nazism, I think about the ways Nazis from Hitler on down cited the American westward expansion as an inspiration for their bloody campaign for lebensraum on the Russian steppes. But Whitman is a lawyer concerned with lawyerly things. And so he looks mainly to American race law, most notably immigration and citizenship law as well as the Jim Crow laws. He argues that the Nazis, when they looked abroad for examples, found the best developed sets of laws pertaining to race in the United States (and, he says, the British dominions- it’d be interesting to see more on that). He further argues that what they saw influenced Nazi race law.

This book stirred up a certain amount of controversy (perhaps why Whitman felt the need to do so much hand-holding), on some reasonable grounds. Influence is notoriously elusive. Whitman can find plenty of examples of Nazis praising American race law, citing it in legal research, and so on. But can he proves influence? He tries to, by showing how the Nuremberg Laws, the core Nazi anti-semitic legistlation, was preceded by a Nazi legal conference that discussed the American example extensively. But how much that really proved essential to the Nuremberg Laws — which, Whitman allows, are quite different from American race law, in some instances even softer (no “one drop” rule for Jews, for instance) — is up for debate. So is the influence of law and lawyers on Nazi Germany in general, given it’s “Fuhrer principle” and rebuking of “sterile legalism.”

From the cheap seats, I’d split the difference. Intellectual historians deal with influence all the time, and while they haven’t made it any less elusive they have learned to deal with its iffyness. From an intellectual history perspective, the Nazis saw themselves as part of a community of racist white states, of which they sought to be the most advanced. They saw the US as part of that community, an advanced part in terms of its techniques of racism, and not for no reason. But this is more along the line of the frontier-lebensraum connection. Whitman wants to establish an almost legal culpability for American law, and it’s unclear that he does. I’m not sure how much that matters- the courts being adjudicators of law and not necessarily justice. The American-Nazi connection passes the muster of justice, if not that of the notional letter of notional law. ****

Review- Whitman, “Hitler’s American Model”

Review- Brown, “In the Ruins of Neoliberalism”

Wendy Brown, “In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: the Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West” (2019) – One of the major theorists around these days takes a whack at defining These Times and the rise of the far right. I’d argue Brown does a better job than any of the other cracks out there, but the form it takes — short critical theoretical interventions — has its limitations.

As the subtitle promises, Wendy Brown frames the rise of the far right as an assault on democracy, already controversial as far as These Timesers are concerned, scared as they are of populism and “illiberal democracy.” In part, Brown elides them definitionally, arguing that democracy means equality and that whatever today’s moment about, it isn’t about equality in any meaningful sense. I happen to think she’s right that democracy, to be substantial, involves a downward distribution and equalization of power, but I know that’s not necessarily the agreed-upon definition.

Anyway… what is threatening democracy so? Brown’s most arresting image is of today’s far right as neoliberalism’s Frankenstein monster. The classical neoliberal thinkers did not have this in mind. Brown musters the latest work on neoliberalism, most notably that of Quinn Slobodian on the state and Melinda Cooper on moral politics, to argue that neoliberalism sought to encase an order defined by markets and traditional morality (somewhat underdefined in the lit, alas) from popular pressure. This included popular pressure from the right. But neoliberalism broke down so many social solidarities and so weakened democratic forces that, like ancient diseases emerging from the melting permafrost (my image, not hers), forces of rage and hatred neoliberalism thought it had short-circuited have arisen to remake the future in their image.

Her argument seems to be that neoliberalism essentially wanted an escape from politics, or anyway to contain politics in a little box that had minimum output onto (and in some cases maximum input from) markets and morals. But the repressed has a way of returning, and the political — the drive to define and use power — finds its way back, especially given how weak many neoliberal regimes have turned out to be. There’s some smidgen of hope there — liberatory politics, too, have made a comeback — but it could be too little, too late, against the anti-democratic forces over which neoliberalism has lost control. This, in short, “scans” as correct to me, and as a useful framing for further discussion.

Brown choices of material on which to dwell are interesting. She spends a lot of time getting her neoliberalism ducks in a row, correcting her previous work, “Undoing the Demos,” which largely ignored the moral elements of neoliberalism, and showing the ways different strains of the ideology both sought to undo democracy and avoid the sort of mass action on the right we see today. Her emphasis here is on the intellectual architects of neoliberalism- Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, the German ordoliberals. I wonder if it would have made a difference if she looked more at neoliberalism in the field, throughout the world. Jumping perhaps unfairly to the most dramatic example, she might have made use of Chile, which involved a certain amount of mobilization of popular right-wing sentiment. She’s also a legal expert and spends a lot of time with court cases, which was interesting in terms of its reconstruction of the logic of the neoliberal subject, but also at times more opaque than the rest of this work.

Brown goes a long way here towards giving a theoretical frame to further study of the contemporary far right. It’s interesting that she avoids the big “f-word,” fascism- popular anti-democratic politics sounds like a decent succinct definition to me. She probably avoided more trouble than wading into the fascism-definition game is worth. But I do think getting more into the historical specifics, which the example of fascism makes one do, would have strengthened this book. It’s not just fascism, either. Some sampling of the different ways both neoliberalism and its noxious spawn vary between times and places, outside of what she did on their intellectual pedigrees, also would have made for a robust work, closer to whatever unicorn of a book on the right I’m chasing. But helping define the question as Brown does here is surely a step in the right direction. ****’

Review- Brown, “In the Ruins of Neoliberalism”

Review- Marable, “Malcolm X”

Manning Marable, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention” (2011) – Malcolm X emerges as an elusive figure in this biography of the iconic militant. Manning Marable, in his last work before he died, spends some time riffing on Malcolm’s various names — Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, Malcolm X, Malik el-Shabazz — to show a consistent pattern of reinvention. In Marable’s telling, Malcolm X was the political avatar of the northern black urban experience, in the same way MLK Jr. could be seen as that of the pro-civil rights black bourgeoisie. Marable admires Malcolm without sugarcoating him, and makes clear that at core, his subject was always dedicated to black pride and welfare.

Do I need to rehearse the details of Malcolm X’s life? Raised by poor followers of Marcus Garvey, young Malcolm Little dropped out and became a hustler in New York and Boston before being imprisoned for theft. In prison, he discovers the Nation of Islam, a conservative black nationalist group by way of a (profoundly heretical) take on the Islamic religion. He becomes a preacher and catapults the Nation to a degree of prominence unheard of previously. Famously vociferous in his condemnation of whites as devils and calling for complete separation of black and white society, Malcolm becomes a national figure, an inspiration to his following, a challenge to the civil rights movement, a bogey-man to whites.

Here, the conventional story gets a little foggier, and Marable isn’t that much help. Some combination of factors alienate Malcolm from the Nation. Part of it is knowledge of serial abusive sexual infidelity on the part of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation’s leader. Part was due to Muhammad severely disciplining him for making flippant remarks about the Kennedy assassination. And part was due to the legendary journey to Mecca, where he both witnesses people of all races praying together, and perhaps got the hint from his new Egyptian and Saudi friends that the Nation, with its extra prophet and insistence a substantial part of the human race was of demonic origin, was not exactly orthodox Islam. Either way, in the last year of his life, Malcolm quits the Nation, renounces hatred of whites, starts some new black freedom organizations, and is then murdered in public in Harlem.

Of course, Marable is writing in the shadow of the efforts of Malcolm himself to define himself, and competing with the efforts of Alex Haley, coauthor and writer of the final word in Malcolm X’s autobiography. It must be hard to compete with one of the few books that college and high school students will read when assigned. Marable argues that the Autobiography was consistently sensationalized, to make Malcolm’s rise from the gutter that much more dramatic, and that Haley intervened to soft-pedal Malcolm’s message in the end. In short, Malcolm made it more of a movie and Haley edited it for white audiences. This seems to scan. Malcolm was above all else a public pedagogue (he was certainly called a demagogue often enough) and knew how to shape a story to engage an audience.

One thing that the Autobiography can’t promise is the identity of Malcolm X’s killers, which Marable claims to know. I can’t speak to his reconstruction of the crime, but the bottom line is: the Nation did it. This is believable enough, though I bet the FBI and/or NYPD intelligence knew about it and let it happen. They had infiltrated the Nation to a fare-thee-well and Malcolm’s charisma turning towards multiracial organizing was the stuff of J. Edgar Hoover’s nightmares. But the Nation had enough of an established pattern of intimidation and physical punishment of dissenters to think that they didn’t need to get the idea from someone else.

There’s also a focus on Malcolm’s family life that is missing in the Autobiography, which can be seen as a symptom of what Marable sees as Malcolm’s serious lack of interest in his wife and children. If Marable is right, Malcolm was a lousy husband. The book also details Malcolm’s financial woes- everything he had, at a certain point, belonged to the Nation, and when it got cut off… only the posthumous publication of the Autobiography saved Betty, his wife, and their children from penury.

I remember when this book came out and there was a lot of controversy about it, along with waves of praise and awards. I wish I knew enough to meaningfully weigh in. I will say that Manning Marable did indeed take some liberties. I’ll also say the liberties the critics zero in sometimes show their own biases. For instance, they get really mad when Marable implied Malcolm’s early hustling days extended to male prostitution, which admittedly Marable seemed to pull out of nowhere. They also object to Marable making Malcolm seem more socialist, which sounds like nationalist red-baiting to me but also just inaccurate. He doesn’t come off as consistently socialist or anti-socialist at all.

In fact, a troubling part of the picture of Malcolm that emerges from Marable’s telling is one of inconsistency. He changed up his ideas on violence, a black state, the role of whites, capitalism and socialism, not just over time but from speech to speech. I agree there’s a consistent throughline — what he thinks will allow the black race to live on its own terms — but the inconsistencies on major issues is jarring. I wonder if a greater consistency would emerge if his rhetoric was more closely analyzed, but this is a popular work and there isn’t too much of that. All in all, this highly readable work is a good read if read critically, and raises more questions than it definitively answers. I guess that’s what happens when you try to biographize an icon. ****

Review- Marable, “Malcolm X”

Review- Jama-Everett, “The Liminal People”

Ayize Jama-Everett, “The Liminal People” (2011) – I got turned on to Ayize Jama-Everett by an article about writing action-y novels. This, his first book and second that I’ve read, fits the bill. It’s a novel about super-people — you really can’t say superheroes, though I guess superheroes as a genre aren’t always especially heroic these days — using their powers on one another. If anyone saw the underrated action flick “Push,” it’s a bit like that. Answering the now-trite “what if superpowers but real” question, both “Push” and Jama-Everett reply “live on the margins, dodging bigger powers and doing crimes.”

The protagonist, Taggert, is someone who can manipulate bodies on the molecular level. This makes him a healer but also capable of devastating harm- think of someone who can manipulate your nerves, your histamines, your bodily acids, etc. After healing a streak through Africa (both Taggert and Jama-Everett are black, which makes this less cringey than if a white author/protagonist did it- sorry, I don’t make the cringe rules) he gets picked up by a powered crime boss in Morocco. Boss Nordeen’s powers are vague but include being able to tell when others are lying and probably some sort of emotional manipulation. Nordeen puts Taggert to work healing and harming, more of the latter.

Taggert gets called on by an ex-lover in London to help find her missing daughter. Lo and behold, both mother and daughter are powered, but the ex-lover chose to live in the mainstream, suppressing her powers (which entailed controlling fire- fewer obvious peacetime applications). The runaway daughter, Tamara, is a telepath/telekinetic combo who ran away from an illusionist and her posse who looked to manipulate her talents.

The plot isn’t exactly the thickest but it’s a fun read nevertheless. Taggert and Tamara go on a quest for revenge, Taggert looks to shield Tamara from his boss, there’s a training montage, some big confrontations between superpowered crooks. It’s good clean fun. ****’

Review- Jama-Everett, “The Liminal People”

Review- Levi, “The Reawakening”

Primo Levi, “The Reawakening” (1963) (translated from the Italian by Stuart Woolf) – I already said this when I reviewed “The Periodical Table” last year, but: what to say about Primo Levi? He went through a lot of shit and said what he saw. In “The Reawakening,” we start with him in the last days of Auschwitz. He was too sick to be marched away with most of the inmates as the Red Army closed in- ironically, his sickness probably saved his life, as few survived the march. We then follow him as a refugee protected by the Russian army, first headed to Kracow and Katowice, then to various spots in Ukraine and Belarus, then on a winding train journey back to Turin, where he started from twenty months before.

Along the way, Levi experiences sickness, boredom, and misery, but there’s a lightness to the whole odyssey that animates the book- they survived, they’re going home. The Russians are depicted in an interesting way: sort of gargantuan, big in everything from their compassion to their messiness, Levi admires them but in a distant, almost patronizing kind of way. In the essay that follows the recounting of his travels, he defends the Soviet Union from those who try to say it was the same as Nazi Germany, and does so well, I think. More to the point of the book are the other survivors Levi finds himself amongst- the Greek Mordo and Cesare being the most memorable. Mordo is a grimly efficient survivor and Cesare a gregarious, bargaining one- both of them take Primo under their wings, Mordo almost in spite of himself, and help him survived. Levi reports on their doings in an almost bemused way, and this carries the reader through the accounts of scrounging for shoes and food, the creation of little mini-societies wherever the refugee train rests on its way back to Italy. It’s humanity at its most human, contradictory in every element but still a consistent whole. Nobody needs me to convince them that Primo Levi is great. Just go read him if you haven’t already. *****

Review- Levi, “The Reawakening”

Review- Littell, “The Kindly Ones”

REREAD (sort of) MINNIT with PETER: Jonathan Littell, “The Kindly Ones” (2006) (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell) (performed for audiobook by Grover Gardner) – Since I got my current job, I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks while doing the various boring computer-bound tasks the job entails. I never got into them before- too slow, no opportunity to take notes. But I find with the right kind of book it’s ok, plus I’ve gotten sick of most podcasts, which either seem to be grade school-level recitations or regurgitations of twitter dramatics. Shouts out to the SHWEP (Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast) for keeping it real (and esoteric!).

Audiobooks are also a way to do rereads without feeling like I’m retreading. Rereading “The Kindly Ones” would be a major task- clocking in at over 900 pages (or nearly 40 hours of audio time, unabridged, ably performed by actor Grover Gardner) and not being exactly forgiving to the reader, in form or content. These 900 pages come to us from the point of view of an unrepentant (though not exactly free from guilt) SS war criminal. While protagonist Max Aue is determined to make clear to us that most of us would do as he did in the same situation, that it wasn’t some unique depravity of Germany or the Nazis that made the Holocaust possible, he is possessed of a fairly uniquely set of circumstances himself. He’s a highly-educated, cultured young man (in that, not unique among his generation of SS bureaucrats), and his family situation is the stuff of Greek tragedy, which has all sorts of effects on his personality and actions. His evil is not banal, though to a certain extent his drive to self-expression which frames the whole book is.

I guess it would make sense to say what actually takes place in the novel. After an extended introduction where Aue, an old man sometime in the 1970s or after, explains why he’s writing (and why he’s not- he’s not looking for an out, at least he tells us that), we start with the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Aue, an officer in the Sicherheitsdeinst (SD) or Security Office portion of the SS, is sent to observe the actions of the Einsatzgruppe, SS units that were charged with protecting the German rear during the invasion. This generally meant mass killings, first of commissars and Communist party members, then retaliatory killings of civilians en masse, and always, mass slaughters of Jews. Aue witnesses the notorious Babi Yar massacre as well as numerous smaller killings and plays a minor role in carrying out some of them. There’s a lot of observing in this novel. Trifling critics have claimed Littell set up Aue to be everywhere at the “greatest hits” of the Third Reich, like a Nazi Forrest Gump. That’s flatly untrue. To the extent Aue’s career rings false, it’s that he meets a lot more high-functioning Nazis than necessarily makes sense, but his career — the Einsatzgruppe, helping decide the “Jewish question” in the Caucasus where old tribes of Jews had existed from time immemorial, Stalingrad, inspecting Auschwitz, involvement with the liquidation of the Hungarian Jews — isn’t that outrageous for an SS officer who could survive it all. And it doesn’t include a lot of important things, like Leningrad, any involvement with the Officer’s Plot beyond hearing about it, or anything to do with the Western Front, the latter an especially notable move for an American author.

As he’s observing and reporting all of these things, he has his personal life to deal with. He used to do incest with his twin sister when they were kids and he never got over it. His father, a WWI and Freikorps veteran, disappeared when they were little and his mother remarried a Frenchman who Aue hates. The kids were packed off to boarding school where little Aue developed a taste for sodomy that remains the only sex he has, with a lot of rhapsodizing about how being fucked brings him closer to his sister, etc. etc. He narrowly avoids being outed and fighting a duel in the Caucasus. He gets shot through the head in Stalingrad but survives, experiencing bizarre dreams of being rescued from the icy Volga by a zeppelin pilot who resembles Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Aue reunites with his sister and her husband, an old-school Junker conservative, for a bit and then in all likelihood kills his mother and stepfather, though he can’t remember it. After that, he’s pursued by two Columbo-esque Kripo cops and is protected by Bond-villain-esque Doctor Mandelbrod, who sends him to observe and try to wring more productivity out of Auschwitz. Finally, between his personal situation and the collapse of the Third Reich, Aue finds himself in a fever dream of further depravity and destruction which only ends with the novel. This paragraph and the one preceding it are very abbreviated and there’s all kinds of other intriguing bits in the novel, including Aue’s involving himself with the fascist literary scene in France and an interesting run-in with a Soviet commissar in the ruins of Stalingrad. It is, as they say, a lot.

Insofar as a novel full of death, depravity, and endless bureaucratic infighting and quibbling can be catnip to anyone, this one was catnip to me because I like a lot going on in a book and I think it makes a historical argument more than anything. Littell clearly did the reading in the history of Nazism, the Eastern Front, and the Holocaust. And excitingly (to me) he doesn’t stick with any one writer’s explanation of how it all occurred and let it direct the text. There’s some of Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” here, especially in the depiction of the rank and file of the Einsatzgruppe, but Aue and his peers are no ordinary men, even if you left aside all of Aue’s family drama. There’s more than a dash, alas, of the totalitarian school, drawing parallels between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the kernel of truth in which is generally drowned in tendentious Cold War overgrowth. The witness-bearing I see as, along with being a literary device, Littell’s tip of the cap to the diarists of the period and of the encyclopedic scope of works like Raul Hilberg’s “Destruction of the European Jews.” Examples could doubtless be added by people who know the literature better than I do. And maybe this is a stretch too far but I think Aue’s family situation is a way to bring the West as a whole into it by stirring Greek tragedy, one of the ur-texts of Western civilization such as it is, into the pot. But there isn’t one thesis that the book is illustrating. There’s a lot going on.

Littell wrote the book in French and was the first American to win the Prix Goncourt. But Anglophone (and, I’m told, German) critics first freaked out over it (in a bad way) and then ignored it- I’m told its English sales numbers were disappointing. They dismissed it as a horror story, as trash, exploitation, as overly long, evidence of French perversity. It doesn’t take much to bring out the provincialism of the New York Times literary page and this was more than enough. I first heard about it in an essay by Walter Benn Michaels where he contrasts the emphasis on structural responsibility, the smallness of the individual in the face of world-historical forces, that “The Kindly Ones” makes with the individualism of the memoir and memoir-esque writing that Anglophone critics seem to prefer. I think Michaels is right in this instance- the same critics will sit through all sorts of horrors if there’s a nice edifying moral or personal fulfillment in the end. Maybe it’s just the historian in me, but Littell’s depiction of the Holocaust and of Aue’s fucking himself with various objects in a fever delerium didn’t make my skin crawl nearly as much as Junot Diaz’s depictions of men “dating” preteen girls as though it was just normal in the Dominican community. Personally, I think reading “The Kindly Ones” is a salutary exercise, much more so than going through another contemporary memoir in my opinion, and, as Aue promises in the introduction, full of interesting incident. *****

Review- Littell, “The Kindly Ones”