So jump already Tuesday, May 23 2006 

Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down

Right at the end of Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down, there's a scene where the main characters stand around staring at a Ferris Wheel for a while, and come to the conclusion that:

"It didn't look as though it was moving, but it must have been I suppose".

That's about as good a description of Hornby's latest novel as any I can offer. A Long Way Down is a meandering, pointless and exceedingly dull novel that confuses cliche with profundity, and whiny unattractiveness with depth of character. That bit with the Ferris Wheel, for instance, is the most 'poetic' moment in the book (you know: it's a Metaphor for the Ferris Wheel of Life, etc.). Shudder! (more…)

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The laddy is a tramp Monday, May 22 2006 

Robert McLiam Wilson's Ripley Bogle

"These victorious figures of bravado ossified young"

– Robert Lowell, 'Waking in the Blue'

We are all voyeurs of despair. Deep inside every one of this there is an entirely unhealthy fascination with the bottom of the barrel, the underside of the boat. We have all imagined what it would be like to hit bottom, to really let go. And because few, if any, of us care to conduct this experiment on ourselves, we have come to romanticise the figure of the tramp, of the man who has lost it all, of the person driven by his own demons to the extremes of despair and indigence. We are fascinated by accounts of such people – the teenage girl who tries repeatedly to take her own life, the young man who loses everything he has to drink and jealousy, the promising young writer who spends an entire weekend in a desperate, crawling quest for alcohol. There is a frisson we get from these characters because they are like us, but also inalienably other. Because we recognise in them our own impulses, our own thoughts, but their ruined lives bear no resemblance to our safe, pampered existence. Because they are both just across the street and a whole lifetime away.

Add to this idea a generous sprinkling of wit, some sparkling prose, a meaty portion of the old ultraviolence and the ne'er do well flair of old Ireland, and you have Ripley Bogle [1]. Bogle is your regular young Irish snot – born in one of the seedier parts of Belfast to even seedier parents, and growing up in the rough, unwashed but time-honoured tradition of poor Irish boys. Except that young Ripley, in secret and fantastical defiance of the laws of both nature and nurture, turns out to be an inspired auto-didact, a roaring genius, no less, who devours books out of the public library and then, afraid of being seen to be literate, buries them in his neighbour's garden. The result is a character who has the attitude of a street-fighting roughneck, the emotional outlook of a hormonal teenager and the vocabulary of an Oxford don. Delightful. (more…)

Bite Sunday, May 21 2006 

The short stories of Etgar Keret

Of all the joys that reading affords us, there are few like the thrill of discovering a new writer. You know the feeling. The startled surprise when you read the first page and feel the prose sizzling in your head; the sense of amazement that deepens into admiration, then into obsession; the desperate desire to get your hands on everything this new writer has ever written; the phone calls to friends telling them that they must, simply must, read this author; the kick you get when you read something new and you begin to see the patterns in the plot and the style begins to seem familiar and you can now proudly claim to be a fan.

My discovery of the month (for which many, many thanks to Black Mamba) is Israeli short story writer Etgar Keret. At once magical and visceral, playful and intense, Keret's short stories dazzle like fireworks, rockets of prose exploding onto the page. I haven't been this kicked about a new writer since I discovered Murakami all those years ago. (more…)

Light Fantastic Wednesday, May 17 2006 

Truman Capote's Summer Crossing

Has there ever been a writer with more charm, more verve, than Truman Capote? At his best, Capote's writing is fizzing and vivacious, possessed of a crisp, almost electrifying lightness that sets it soaring above the desperate gravity of his plots. Capote has a great gift for combining acuteness of observation with an unparalleled lightness of touch, the combination of which makes his language sing off the page.

His newly published novel (dredged up from memorabilia discovered in 2004, and believed to be his first completed work, predating Other Voices, Other Rooms) is a testament to this talent of his. Much of the prose here is simply astonishing: the rhythm is perfect; the descriptions deftly, almost impressionistically delivered, yet pinpointedly exact; the whole thing hums with the kind of jazzy lyricism one never hoped to read outside of early Fitzgerald. Here, for instance, is Capote's description of a visit to the Zoo: (more…)

The women in white Monday, May 15 2006 

Deepa Mehta's Water

May I not wed as you have wed?

may it not break, beauty,

from out my hands, my head, my feet?

may Love not lie beside me

till his heat

burns me to ash?

may he not comfort me, then,

spent all of that fire and heat,

still, ashen-white and cool

as the wet laurels,

white, before your feet

step on the mountain-slope,

before your fiery hand

lift up the mantle

covering flower and land,

as a man lifts,

O Hymen, from his bride,

(cowering with woman eyes,) the veil?

O Hymen lord, be kind.

– H.D. 'Cassandra'

The difficulty in reviewing Deepa Mehta's Water is that it's not really one movie – it's two. The first is an exceedingly silly boy meets girl Bollywood costume drama starring Lisa Ray as the fair damsel in distress and John Abraham as her tall, dark and handsome Prince Charming. Ray is Kalyani, a hapless and oh-so-innocent young widow forced into prostitution by the head of her ashram. Abraham is Narayan, a rich zamindar's son, fresh out of law school, whose overblown romantic tendencies (he quotes Byron and Kalidasa, he plays the flute!) find expression in an idealistic love for Kalyani (imagine that! the two best looking people on screen teaming up! who would have thought it), as a result of which he plans to break with tradition and make this beggar maid…errr..widow, his bride. This Narayan, we are told, is an idealistic young man, burning with nationalistic fervour. But aside from putting up a framed picture of Gandhi, Narayan's nationalism seems to consist largely of growing an artful stubble [1], and mooching about after Kalyani. There's a point in the film where Narayan (adopting his look-at-me-I'm-so-idealistic tone of voice) lectures his father on how it's wrong to quote scripture for your own purposes. But the truth is that Narayan's own passion for reform seems to consist of little more than a sublimated desire to get under Kalyani's spotless white sari. At any rate, the whole thing from start to finish is triteness personified, complete with depraved old Zamindars, and Waheeda Rehman as the quintessential Bollywood mother. There are even songs in the rain! Abraham spends the entire film looking as though he's accidentally stumbled off the Siyaram ad set, and Ray, while admittedly the most gorgeous widow ever to grace Benares's banks, never manages to rise beyond her girl next door act. Ms. Mehta should have stuck with Nandita Das.

Fortunately, there is another film contained within Water. This one features the incredible Seema Biswas and is a heart-rending and poignant story about the shocking plight of the windows of Benares. The time is 1938. Chuiya, a seven year old girl, is widowed and left with an ashram by her family. Here she meets the other widows – ostracised by society, with no means of sustenance but the charity of others, these women live lives of abject poverty and humiliation. They are not allowed to remarry. They are not supposed to come too close to married women and brides, because their shadow is considered impure. They are to stay locked away in the poverty of the ashram until they die. It is a terrible, terrible fate.

Yet change is slowly coming. New laws, championed by reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, have made widow remarriage legal, and Gandhi's nationalistic movement is bringing a wave of social reforms in its wake. For the widows of Benares, however, all this means little. Even if they had the economic basis to turn these reforms into real opportunities, they are ignorant, often illiterate, women, mired in a world of superstition and ritual. Remarriage is a sin – the sacred texts say so – suffering is their prescribed lot and they must bear it.

In exploring these themes, Mehta's film does three things. First, it highlights the important social issue of the way widows are treated in India (Mehta claims at the end of the film that there are still millions of widows suffering the same kind of deprivation). Second, it provides a balanced perspective on the nature of this subjugation – tracing it back not only to parochial tradition, but also to very real economic issues and to the resignation of the widows themselves. And third, she converts the issue of widow remarriage into a larger symbol for a country on the brink of social change, trapped between the statutes of tradition and the imperatives of reason and personal conscience.

Seema Biswas is the embodiment of that struggle. Biswas plays Shakuntala, a stern but ultimately good-hearted widow who runs the Ashram that Chuiya is abandoned in, and is the one who, in her own unsentimental way, takes Chuiya under her wing. Shakuntala has no illusions about the future. She lives out her days with uncomplaining patience, finding what little comfort she can in the scriptures, but is too pragmatic to find any real hope in them. She knows there is no way out for her, and yet, when the time comes, and she recognises that there may still be a chance for some of the younger residents of the ashram, she is the one who wrestles with her conscience and finds the strength to guide them to their freedom.

Make no mistake, this is Biswas' film. Oh, there are a number of other sterling performances – Raghuvir Yadav is brilliant as the hijra Gulabi, and Manorama does an excellent job as Madhumati, the greedy head of the ashram. And child actress Sarala is heartbreaking as Chuiya. But Biswas is the true centre of gravity here – her very presence on screen radiates such intensity that a single close-up of her face is enough to compensate for all the cliched stupidity of the Ray-Abraham bits. The point is not just that Biswas is able to project an incredible amount of quiet sorrow, though to watch her act here is to be reminded of that Shakespeare line about sitting 'like patience on a monument'. The point is that Biswas has the ability to come across as amazingly genuine – every expression, every tone of speech is exactly right – she makes the part her own the way few actresses can. There's a scene in the film where Shakuntala playfully asks Chuiya how she (Shakuntala) is looking. Chuiya, with all the heartlessness of youth replies, "You look old". Just watching the expression on Biswas' face, the shock of the hurt like water closing over a stone, makes this movie worth watching.

This second 'side' of Water is easily the finest movie in Ms. Mehta's three part trilogy: a poetic, deeply moving piece that may be the best film I've seen come out of India in this decade [2]. I can't help wondering, therefore, why Ms. Mehta had to go handcuff it to the silliness of the Bollywood-like love sequences. Did we really need the Ray-Abraham romance? Okay, so the two stories are linked, but surely the gaps in the Chuiya Shakuntala story could have been filled some other way? I for one, would have liked to see the other residents of the Ashram explored more. That would, admittedly, have made this a more serious film – but it is a serious film anyway, and all the faux melodrama that the Ray-Abraham bits add to it seem misplaced and annoying. Water is half Aparajito and half Parineeta (my review here). If only we could get the one without the other.

Notes

[1] To be fair, this does seem to occupy a lot of his mental energies. There's actually a dramatic moment in the film where he lathers his face with shaving cream, presumably in preparation for a shave. Then, at the last minute, he thinks the better of it and washes the foam off. One wonders what would have happened to the history of the British Raj if he had in fact shaved his beard off that day.

[2] Not that I watch enough of Indian cinema for that to mean much.

Same Difference Sunday, May 14 2006 

Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence

Will someone please hire Amartya Sen an editor? His new book, Identity and Violence, is instructive and insightful, but it's also the most endlessly repetitive and frustratingly rambling book I've read in a long while. For every one step Sen takes forward, he takes four steps circling through what he's already said, so that you spend much of the book thinking "Wait! Haven't I already read this before?". This would be annoying enough if the author had nothing to say – but when the writer is someone as deserving of a careful read as Sen, it becomes doubly irritating, because you can't afford to skim the repetitive bits.

Consider an example. On the second page of the prologue, Sen writes: "The same person can be, without any contradiction, an American citizen, of Caribbean origin, with African ancestry, a Christian, a liberal, a woman, a vegetarian, a long-distance runner, a historian, a schoolteacher, a novelist, a feminist, a heterosexual, a believer in gay and lesbian rights, a theater lover, an environmental activist, a tennis fan, a jazz musician, and someone who is deeply committed to the view that there are intelligent beings in out space with whom it is extremely urgent to talk". Well put. Except that he says basically the same thing again on page 19, except this time in first person: "I can be, at the same time, an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a strong believer in secularism and democracy, a man, a feminist, a heterosexual, a defender of gay and lesbian rights, with a nonreligious lifestyle, from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin, and a non-believer in the after-life." And then again on page 24. And something similar comes up on page 30 (this time his ex-wife's father is the example used). AND by page 46 we're back to the anonymous woman, who can be a lawyer and a feminist, etc, etc. all at the same time. Certainly, some ideas bear repeating – but five times in less than 50 pages is surely excessive. And that's just the number of times he's using this 'example' to make the point. I'm not even counting the myriad other ways he's trying to put across the same idea.

This sense of deja vu is made worse if you happen to have read some of Sen's earlier work – in particular his last book, The Argumentative Indian. A good part of the anecdotes from that book return in this one – we are told (at least twice in this book alone) how Akbar was making great reforms while heretics were being burnt in medieval Europe, how Akbar was all for the path of reason, the 'rahi aql' (shouldn't that be raah-e-aql, btw) but remained a proper Muslim his whole life. There's the usual talk about Ashoka. The anecdote about Mandela's childhood experiences of local democracy returns, complete with the quote from the Long Walk to Freedom. There's plenty of talk about ancient India's contribution to mathematics.

The point is not that these examples are not valid (and to be fair, there are several other interesting examples that Sen does bring in) or that Sen's basic arguments do not make sense – Sen is, in my opinion, eminently right – the point is that the constant repetition makes the argument sound less convincing, because it feels as though Sen has an incredibly limited store of instances to draw on. After the fourth time you've heard Aryabhata mentioned, you begin to wonder if that's the only contribution to mathematics that India ever made. Surely Sen, of all people, could bring a richer range of instances to bear. In their absence, he comes across less as a serious historian and more as a beloved and erudite uncle, one who goes over the same old war stories over and over again, forgetting, each time, that he's told them to you before. I believe Sen, but if I hadn't started reading Identity and Violence already in agreement with what he is saying, I doubt his arguments in this book alone would have convinced me.

Identity and Violence is also, I think, a much weaker book than The Argumentative Indian when it comes to dealing with India. Sen is surprisingly dense on India this time around – he tells us (twice again!) that India now has a Sikh prime minister, a Muslim president and a leader of the ruling party who's Christian – offering this as evidence of India's rich multi-cultural society. One expects better from Sen than this kind of tokenism – especially when, by his own argument, the relevant dimension by which to assess this 'achievement' may not be religion, but other socio-economic factors (caste, economic status, etc.). Worse, there's a point in the book (pg 168 – 169) where Sen actually makes the claim that "thanks to the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and others…India has been able, to a considerable extent, to avoid indigenous terrorism linked to Islam", giving credit for this to the nature of India's democratic politics. Sen says that making this claim is embarassing for him as an Indian – but it should be embarassing for him as a scholar. That claim may be literally true, but it's made true only by adding 'linked to Islam' at the end of that statement. India is hardly a thriving pluralistic democracy free of terrorist violence. Remember Punjab, remember Kashmir? And what about the Naxalites, and the ULFA, and the dozens of other indigenous terrorist organisations fighting against the idea that they are a part of India? And it's not as though India has a particularly exemplary record of communal harmony either. Certainly, India's democratic credentials are impressive, especially when seen in context. And the point (made so well in The Argumentative Indian) that this democracy is not an entirely Western import, but at least partly a long-standing local tradition, is well taken. But the celebration of Indian 'democracy' must be balanced against the very real inequalities that exist in the country (again, something that Sen has done well before), rather than exalting India, as Sen seems to do here, as some sort of exemplar of how pluralism can be managed.

These initial quibbles notwithstanding, this is an impressive and insightful book. Sen's basic argument is both relevant and well-made. He makes three fundamental points:

First, that human identity cannot be defined on the basis of religion or region alone. Human identity is a composite of a great many categories, a wide range of dimensions, and while some of these dimensions may be fixed (in the sense that we cannot change them), we are certainly free to choose what weight we give to each category in defining (for ourselves) the identify of the self. To classify people on the basis of any dimension then, to group them together because they are the same in one way, is to completely miss out on the dozens of ways in which they are different. This sort of single category focus is therefore misleading and wrong. Moreover, adopting such a focus creates a potential for polarisation, which eventually leads to the sort of violence between communities that is becoming an increasingly common feature of our world today. If we recognised that people are not just Christians or Muslims but a wide variety of other things besides, we would begin to see the many ways in which the people we are fighting are just like us, and would have incentive to make common cause with them, rather attack them. Definitions of identity matter, because narrow definitions enable violence.

Second, this pluralism of identity has important implications for socio-historic theories that tend to categorise large populations as belonging to a certain culture – the 'clash of civilisations' hypothesis. These theories are wrong for two reasons: first, because they ignore the rich diversity that exists within the supposedly homogenous cultural groups they define. There is no such thing as a Hindu culture or an Islamic culture, there are only Hindus and Muslims, people who live in South Asia and people who live in West Asia, and all of these people have widely diverse views on ethical, social and cultural issues. Clubbing them together into one meta-culture is non-sensical, asking the question of whether this meta-culture is compatible with other such (bogus) meta-cultures even more so. And second, theories of the 'clash of civilisations' are exercises in historical revisionism, because they completely overlook the rich tradition of linkages between cultures. Neither democracy nor science is the exclusive domain of the West, on the contrary, much of what the West considers its own today came originally from the East, so that there is a very real sense in which civilisation is a truly global phenomenon.

Third, thinking about identity as a choice of weights between different dimensions of the self leads us to the importance of cultural liberalism, and giving people (especially children and young people) the right to choose what values and cultural influences they want to make part of their identity. Multiculturalism, Sen points out, is not about maintaining cultural diversity, it is about allowing for it. In a truly pluralistic society people have a right to choose whatever lifestyle they prefer, and are not forced to adapt to the majority lifestyle any more than they are forced to go in for cultural conservatism and made to inherit the culture they were born into. Restricting people from choosing outside the cultures they were born into (as is implied by British initiatives to put in more faith-based schools) not only goes against the principles of multi-culturalism, it is also dangerous, because it forces people to define their identities more narrowly, and sets the grounds for alienation that ultimately results in violence. We must not only learn to judge people on the entire range of identity choices they make, we must also ensure that they have sufficient exposure to other cultures, values and ideas to keep them from getting pigeon-holed into the sort of narrow identities that make them amenable to manipulation by self-seeking sectarians.

There are several other good points that Sen makes in the book, drawing on the arguments made above. He speaks about the role of religion and the expectations we have of it – arguing that we should not simply assume that the best representatives of immigrant or minority communities are their religious leaders, recognising that religion is just one of many factors defining community interests and identity. He makes a case for globalisation, pointing out that misguided anti-Western parochialism has no place in the quest for human development, but acknowledging the need to pay close attention to the distributional effects of globalisation and the role that appropriate institutions must play in ensuring that globalisation does not increase international inequities (which will eventually lead, he points out, through a process of humiliation and antagonism, to further increases in polarisation, terrorism and violence) [1].

All in all, then, Sen makes several interesting observations here, and his perspective on key international issues is fascinating. While I would be loath to disagree with anything Sen is saying [2], I do think, however, that he doesn't take some of his arguments far enough. One of the more frustrating things about Identity and Violence is that again and again Sen comes up with an observation that seems crucial, but then doesn't really develop it.

Let's start with the 'religion does not define a person' argument. This is undoubtably true – people of the same religious faith can, and do, hold wildly divergent views about a whole host of issues, but the point that Sen alludes to, but never quite develops, is that religion itself is an amorphous quantity, open to a wide variety of interpretations. What do you absolutely have to believe to be a Hindu? What values, what ideologies do you necessarily have to adhere to? Practically none. The idea that belief in a certain faith automatically defines some part of a person's principles and value system is a persistent one, but because of the inherently ambiguous nature of practically all major religions, it is, in my view, entirely false.

Let me give you a personal example. In the spring of 2003, during the initial invasion of Iraq by US forces, I was visiting friends in the US and happened to attend (don't ask me why) a young people's Bible reading session. Our text for the evening was the book of Joshua from the Old Testament. Have you ever read the Book of Joshua? It's a flat-out terrorist manifesto if I've ever read one. God has promised the Israelites land, so they proceed to invade and mercilessly slaughter all the existing inhabitants of the region. The only people spared are those who turn against their own people and aid the invading armies (also known, in plain English, as traitors). The basic message: it's okay to kill innocent people and destroy their cities as long as your God ordains it. Or at least that's the message the group took away from their reading (while I sat in horrified silence at the back) finding, in the book, affirmation for the invasion of Iraq by Bush & co.

The point is (emphatically) not that Christainity is an evil religion, driven by blood-lust. There are plenty of passages in the Bible that emphasise the importance of mercy, 'Thou shalt not kill' is right up there among the Ten Commandments. The point is that the Bible, like most other religious texts, is complex, capacious and contradictory enough to allow for a wide variety of ethical views. The religions of the world are not narrowly defined bodies of ideas that provide clear prescriptions on moral issues, comforting as it may be to believe so, they are diffused entities that can sponsor almost any action under the sun. The Devil can quote scripture for his purpose.

This point is important because it's one of the key enablers of the sort of multiplicity of perspectives and ideas that Sen argues can be espoused by people of the same religion. If religions were truly as directive as we often perceive them to be, then there would be a fairly narrow set of beliefs that would be consistent with holding a particular faith, so that religion would truly go a long way towards defining identity. It's because the set of things that is inconsistent with any religion is so small that whatever religion you happen to belong to has little influence on who you really are. That's why it's such a bad idea to make judgements about people based on their religion.

My main criticism of Identity and Violence is that Sen, even as he clearly explicates the reasons why single dimension identity measures are wrong, never really discusses the question of why such narrow measures end up being adopted [3]. This is not simply an academic question. If Sen's argument is that we must step away from the adoption of such narrow frames, then surely the question of why such frames end up being adopted in the first place is a critical question to look into.

My two-cents worth of argument is this. The essential problem, in a world threatened by violence, is one of identification. Faced with the horror of September 11, we need to have an enemy. But how is this enemy to be identified?[4] Sen would argue that we must apprehend this enemy by a careful consideration of various social, cultural and economic aspects of a person's background, as well as their own personal beliefs and choices. There are at least two problems with this. First, the processing power needed to truly understand another person's identity is enormous. We are barely able to apprehend the people we are closest to in their entirety, so what realistic chance do we have of 'understanding' who someone is before condemning them as an enemy? Second, to the extent that identity is about personal choice, our knowledge of it is constrained by self-reporting, thereby raising the possibility of moral hazard. Sen makes this point himself, in response to Lord Tebbit's 'cricket test' (a procedure by which a person is considered a true British citizen only if he cheers for England in a cricket match, even against his home country), pointing out that it would take little effort for a terrorist to cheer England in a match without changing his views or intentions in any way.

The problem then, is to find some way of classifying the enemy that is both easily observable and at least somewhat difficult to change or misreport. Any realistic attempt to identify the enemy must look for patterns, however inconclusive, in the composition of terrorist groups. And the empirical fact is that, in the world as it exists today, the fact of belonging to a particular religion or hailing from a particular region may be correlated, in a statistically significant way, to the probability of being a terrorist. This is where, I believe, narrow views of identity evolve from.

The problem is compounded by the assymetry in costs of making an error in either direction. What is the cost of suspecting an innocent man? What is the cost of not suspecting a terrorist? As long as we believe that the costs of ignoring an enemy is greater than that of mistakenly assuming someone is an enemy, there will always be a bias to play it safe and go after anyone who we might have reason to believe may mean us harm, even at the cost of being unfair.

An everyday analogy may be useful. Assume you're walking down a street in a US city late at night, and you see two young African Americans coming directly towards you. Do you keep walking, or do you cross the street / turn away so as to put some distance between you and them. And if you do the latter, does that make you racist? Perhaps. But the fact is that crime statistics are very clear about the disproportionate number of crimes committed by young African Americans – so that, statistically speaking, there's good reason to believe that you're at a much higher risk of getting mugged by two young black men, as opposed to an elderly white woman. Crossing the street may well be the more prudent thing to do.

Two things are important to note here. First, crossing the street doesn't mean that you think that all African American people are thieves, only that there's a statistically higher probability of it. If you ran into an African American person you knew or were friends with, you'd have no reason to cross the street. But in the absence of any other information you have to make the best assumption you can. Nor can you get to know the person approaching you better at that point – you can't shout across asking them whether they're looking to mug you, for instance. Second, you don't need to believe that being either young or African American is a cause for them being muggers. The argument above is one of correlation, not causality. The fact that crimes by African Americans are more common has nothing to do with race, it has to do with socio-economic disparities between races. White people growing up in the same neighbourhoods with the same opportunities (or lack of them) may turn just as easily to crime. The fact is though, that African American people are disproprotionately subject to the kind of deprivation that drives crime rate up, so that race may still be a good indicator of the propensity to crime, without being a cause for it.

Let's take the example one step further. Let's say you adopt a rule that says that anytime you see anyone coming directly towards you on a street after 1 in the morning, you'll cross the street and avoiding passing next to them. And in 9 out of 10 cases the people you end up avoiding based on this rule are young African Americans – if only because they're the people most likely to be out on the streets at that time of night (any time you see a 65-year old white woman alone in a deserted alley at two o'clock in the morning – be very afraid). Does that make you a racist.

The point is not just that it's easy to see how repeated trials of this rule of yours could leave you biased against African Americans, and could cause you to start using race as an indicator of criminal propensity. The point is also that even if you managed to resist falling into that trap, it would still look to an outsider as though you were just prejudiced against African Americans, and African American community leaders, wanting to condemn you as being racist, would find easy fodder.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that prejudices based on religion or race are justified. They are not. I'm only saying that Sen, in delivering his impassioned argument against narrow definitions of identity, isn't paying enough attention to the real pathology by which those narrow identities come to be accepted. The opponent Sen takes on is a convenient strawman of prejudice disguised as grand theory, and he does an exquisite job of demolishing that opponent. But how many people really believe the grand theories anyway? How many people don't already recognise that Muslims or Hindus or Asians can be more than their stereotypes, that religion or homeland alone does not define an entire human being. That point is certainly worth reiterating and remembering, but the fact is that the narrow lenses of identity that have been adopted recently are a result of people being very frightened and not having any better way of telling friend from foe than these crude measures. Just reminding them that these measures are crude and that the assumptions underlying them are shaky at best is valuable, but it may not be enough. If we really want to create a more pluralistic world, then we have to either make people less afraid or give them a better way of identifying the enemy than religion or homeland. Otherwise one could refute Sen's arguments by saying – yes, we're making some really bad assumptions, but why shouldn't we use them as long as they're making us a little safer and you don't have anything better to offer? Sen could argue back that these assumptions are fundamentally unfair to large sections of immigrant populations, but expecting people to disregard their own safety for some abstract notion of fairness is hoping for too much.

Does this mean that Sen's arguments, though sound, are simply impractical and can be ignored? Should we just go on defining identity in narrow ways until we can come up with something better?

No. For one thing, Sen's book clearly highlights the dangers of empiricism giving way to prejudice. Even if we believe that using narrow measures of identity may be a justifiable empirical strategy, we must be clear that these measures are provisional at best. It's important to be clear about the assumptions implicit in using them – first, that they are correlated indicators, not causal variables, and second, that they are measures to be used in the absence of other reliable information only. A good empiricist sets up a provisional null hypothesis and then does his best to disprove it – the thing you want to be true is almost always the alternate hypothesis. Even if we are to adopt a guilty until proven innocent approach, we must recognise that this entails making serious and open-minded effort to prove the accused innocent. We must not sink into the complacent assumption that all people belonging to a certain religion or geographic area are the enemy, or generate bogus theories that justify this myth; we must rather be aware of the fact that there are many, many other dimensions of identity, and search for evidence on those other dimensions that would weaken the beliefs we hold about a person based on his religion alone. We may use the narrow lens when we have to, but we should constantly be trying to expand it. 

There is, however, a stronger reason for avoiding narrow definitions of identity, one that Sen vaguely points to in his book, but, surprisingly, never really develops. In Chapter 2 of the book (pp 26 and 27) Sen makes the point that there are almost an infinite number of ways in which identity can be categorised, but that not all of them are salient. There is, theoretically, a community of people who wear number 8 shoes, but this is not normally a categorisation of any political importance [5]. Sen goes on to argue that were we to live in a world where size 8 shoes were particularly difficult to find, for some reason, then this may well become an important way of classifying people.

That, I think, is a central point. People come together in communities to obtain support in the face of opposition and adversity. And, often enough (and especially in the absence of other alternatives) they come together with people who share the same adversity, thus making joint action possible. If people with size 8 shoes were suddenly to be discriminated against, people who wore size 8 shoes would come together in solidarity, even though they had almost nothing else in common between them. And that's why victimising people on the basis of one narrow dimension is dangerous – because it can create a reason for solidarity between people who would otherwise never have got together. Singling out a particular community for humiliation or mistreatment will only cause them to feel alienated and make them easy prey for sectarian influences. How many people who never thought of themselves as Jews before the Holocaust became militant Jewish activists after it? How many perfectly well-meaning young men and women have been driven by assaults on their homeland or racism abroad to become suicide bombers? Ultimately, prejudice is self-fulfilling.

Sen, making the case for multiple levels of identity, quotes Shylock from The Merchant of Venice: "fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?". The truly revelatory lines, however, come later: "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge? …The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction". This social Pygmalion effect is, in my mind, the most practical and immediate reason why Sen's arguments against adopting a narrow lens are so important. It's a pity he doesn't discuss this more. 

Not that this idea isn't implicit in Identity and Violence. Sen talks at length about how restrictive schooling and an emphasis on plural monoculturism and cultural conservatism may cause young people to become alienated and provide easy fodder for sectarian violence. But for some strange reason, he seems to believe that this is threat only for young children who, in the absence of exposure to other cultures, may not be able to make intelligent choices. I see no reason, however, why adults are not equally susceptible to mono-cultural influences, especially when the cultures they may want to belong to are cutting them off. To argue that people who have once been exposed to a range of cultural influences will make intelligent choices seems naive, and ignoring the effect of being viewed through a narrow lens on a person's definition of self is perilous. Identity is at least partly a social construction, and if we insist on seeing some people as terrorists based on their religion alone, it may not be long before they prove us right.[6]

One final criticism of Sen's arguments before I close. At one point in the book, Sen argues that the West has been wrong in looking to Islamic leaders to strike a blow against terrorism by excommunicating known terrorists. Being Muslim, Sen argues (for the umpteenth time), is not inconsistent with a wide variety of other beliefs and actions, and while the Islamic leaders may condemn the acts of the terrorists (which they have) they need not necessarily excommunicate the terrorists unless the terrorists actively repudiate Islam. To expect this from them, Sen claims, is unrealistic, and to infer from this that terrorism and Islam are somehow linked makes no sense. There is no 'true voice' of Islam – neither moderate nor violent.

That argument, as far as it goes, is exactly right. But it does beg the question – what is the responsibility of religion in our troubled times? Certainly, we cannot (and should not) automatically expect the Islamic leadership to excommunicate people like Bin Laden from their faith; certainly, there is no necessary contradiction between being a good Muslim and being a terrorist, any more than there is a direct relationship between them. But while we may not demand excommunication, is it really too much to ask? How exactly should a religion respond if violence and bloodshed is being committed in its name [7]? Sure, religions can stick to the line of not constraining any political / social actions not directly in contravention of their faith, but should they? If the religions of the world can play a more active role in stemming or weakening the forces of sectarian violence, shouldn't they be doing so? And how should we think about the relevance of religion in our life, if it does nothing more than issue empty condemnations that nobody heeds? Sen's point that religion is not everything and that we must stop assuming that it is, is well taken. But as long as religion is something, it is surely legitimate to ask what it is, and what role it is to be expected to play. Sen does not, for the consistency of his book, have to explore that theme. But I wish he had.

Overall then, Identity and Violence is an engaging if somewhat frustrating book. Engaging because it elucidates a perspective on violence in our world that is well worth keeping in mind. Frustrating because too much of it seems like a rehash of things Sen has written elsewhere, and too many closely related issues that could and should have been profitably explored are left out. One is grateful to Sen for having written this book. One hopes, however, that the next time he gets around to writing a book he has a lot more new things to say.  

Notes
[1] Interestingly, Sen also makes the point that at least some of the responsibility for the failure of civil liberties in the Third World lies with the West and with the dynamics of the Cold War. In particular, he points to the global arms trade – 85% of which originates in G8 countries, creating, he argues, a push for its use in the third world – as well as making the more general point that the West, while extremely conscious of democracy and civil liberties on its home ground, has been fairly negligent towards the rest of the world. 

[2]  I may be arrogant, but I'm not arrogant enough to take on Sen. Yet. :-). 

[3] To be fair, Sen does raise that question towards the end of the book (pp. 175 -176). But he never really attempts to examine the reasons for it, being content with saying vague things about "fragmentary logic" and drawing on "some basic instincts". The real question – why this works and why it seems so natural – is never really taken up.

[4] For a fuller discussion of the Identification problem, see Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict

[5] I am reminded of a Borges short story where the protagonist comes up with the theory that all people are part of an infinite set of groups, that for everything you are or do there is someone else out there who is or is doing exactly the same thing, and that all these categories could be listed. 

[6]  Notice that this ties nicely back to the argument about differential costs of errors in identifying the enemy. Wrongly accusing someone of being a terrorist may not be quite as harmless as it seem. 

[7] And I don't mean just Islam here – the argument holds for all religions.  

Raymond Chandler High Friday, May 12 2006 

Brick

We all know the story. Sociopathic tough-guy loner finds himself involved in inexplicable mystery. Someone has disappeared. The only clues are the words from a garbled phone call. Our hero taps into his connections on the street, kicks a few butts, and discovers that he's onto something bigger than he suspected. But that doesn't faze him. He's determined to get to the bottom of it all.

What follows is a descent into a seedy underworld of crime, complete with gorgeous women (who come onto our hero), diabolical but half-crazed villains, muscle-bound thugs, corrupt and clueless authorities and a brainy sidekick. It's a tough crowd to be playing games with, but our hero is more than up to the challenge. Along the way a few other side characters get killed, a lot of other people get beaten up or hurt, but through it all our hero never loses his cool, eventually proving himself smarter, tougher and more ruthless than everyone else. By the time the movie ends, all the bad guys are either dead or in prison while our hero has come out of it scot free, and can go back to his miserable meaningless life. No one's particularly happy, but at least justice has been done.

The fact that all this action takes place not in the gritty alleys of John Huston's suffocating cityscape, but in and around a high school, and that the hero in question is not a snarling private eye but an over-intense school kid bunking class, makes little difference. You would have to be blind and deaf not to see the film noir influences here – Brick is a straight up Humphrey Bogart flick, and the ghost of The Maltese Falcon haunts this movie all the way through, even down to the tacky little bird statuette on the villain's mail box.

To say that Brick leaves you unmoved, that its plot is full of holes and its acting has a plastic, hammy quality about it, is to miss the point entirely. Great film noir is entirely about the formula – no one got emotionally involved with character of Sam Spade, or watched The Maltese Falcon for the intricacies of the plot – the whole point of that movie was the attitude. It's the uber-coolness that we craved, the smooth-talking tough guy-ness, the aura of casual menace. We knew the good guy was going to win out, despite the odds; what's more, we knew he was going to pull it off without getting even slightly flustered or putting in more effort than it takes to have a drink. The thrill was seeing how. And if the intensity seemed over-the-top in a comic book kind of way, so much the better. We weren't looking for realism, we were looking for the vibe.

And for all of Brick's many flaws (the street-slang is distracting, the violence seems a little overdone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, but he's no Bogart) that vibe is the one thing it gets mostly right [1]. There are a lot of ways in which the movie is (I suspect unintentionally) funny – you have only to step back from the action and remind yourself that these are high school kids we're talking about and the whole thing begins to look like caricature, despite its frenetic attempts to take itself seriously (and there are a lot of those). But the genius of Rian Johnson's script and direction is that it keeps you involved enough so that you don't notice the preposterousness of it all until you step out of the theatre. And that's really impressive.

If there's one thing that doesn't transfer well, it's the main character. Sam Spade was anti-social and screwed up, but he was never needy, never vulnerable. Brendan, the hero of Brick, is frequently both, and the result is that he comes across as more creepy than cool, more desperate than dapper. You very rarely get the sense that Brendan is in control of anything, and the few times that he does come through the effect is more of someone who's a tad psychotic rather than a hard-nosed professional trying to get the job done. It's a weakness in the script that seems unavoidable, given the high school staging, but it's a serious weakness none the less.

Bottomline: Brick is a fascinating tribute to the genre of film noir, and a truly delightful conceit that's well executed and interesting to watch. If you're the kind of person who never saw the point of those old Bogart films, then this is certainly not the movie for you. If on the other hand, you're someone who can mouth along to the dialogue of the Maltese Falcon, you probably should watch this movie. It won't blow you away. But it'll entertain you.

Notes

[1] Right down to the old-fashioned misogynism that is so central to the Bogart myth. Men, it seems, are always fine, upstanding chaps – even when they're trying to kill you. They're the kind of guys who read Tolkien and fall helplessly in love, and when they hurt someone it's only because they're confused and don't know what to do with their emotions. Women, on the other hand, are all scheming vixens who use their sex to get men to do exactly what they want. The fact that our hero is able to resist these sirens is the real proof of his supremacy.

United we fall Tuesday, May 2 2006 

United 93

Imagine that it's a calm, clear Tuesday morning in the fall. You have an early morning flight to catch. You yawn your way to Newark airport in a taxi, plod your way through security, go sit in the waiting area outside your boarding gate. There's the usual crowd of people around you – a few businessmen in suits, a couple of elderly people, some young people who are probably students. You pull out your cellphone, make a few calls. The pilots pass by and go into the plane, then the airhostesses . Eventually boarding is announced and you make your way to your seat in the plane, dump your stuff in the overhead luggage compartment, settle in for a long flight. It's a pretty empty flight so you've got plenty of space. At first it seems like you're taking off on time, the plane pushes back from the gate on schedule, then your captain announces that you're stuck in a long queue of planes waiting to depart. It's going to be an extra half hour. You groan inwardly. You promise yourself never to fly from Newark / on United again. When the flight finally does take off you breathe a sigh of relief, pull out your crossword, wonder how long breakfast will be. It's just another early morning commuter flight.

Except maybe it's not. Maybe the date is the 11th of september 2001 and you're two minutes away from being thrust into the impossible situation of being a hostage on a suicide mission intending to ram this plane you're on into a building somewhere. How would you know? And more importantly, how would you respond? What would it do if it were you?

That's exactly the question that the new film United 93 leaves you asking. The real genius of this film is the way it makes that flight and the crisis that hits it (and more generally, hits America) seem so frighteningly real. Director Paul Greengrass achieves that effect by breaking away from the standard process of disaster film making, and refusing to give you any background on the people involved. The first time you see the people on United Flight 93 is when they show up in the security lounge. There is no back story on any of them. You are not shown them leaving their homes, or told who they are or what they do. You are not even told their names. All you know about them is what the other passengers in the plane know about them – they are the guy in the sports jacket, the guy in the baseball hat – and if you trust them or watch them in the moment of crisis it is because of the courage and resourcefulness that they show, not because you have been primed to watch them beforehand. And it's this anonymity that gives the movie its flavour of authenticity, that insists that this is a movie about an event, about something that happened to us collectively – it is the story of what happened to people, not the story of what happened to one person.

People have pointed out that this anonymity is Greengrass's way of getting over the knotty problem of how to celebrate the heroism of one or the other person, without dishonouring others who lost their lives, and who, for all we know, may have showed equal, if not greater bravery. But I think there is a deeper reason for this anonymity.Greengrass 's biggest problem here, it seems to me, is hindsight. We all know what happened that fateful day, we've all seen the news coverage, the images are burned permanently into our memories. It would be easy for us to 'know' what was coming in this movie, easy to anticipate every response of the people involved. Yet were we to do this, there would be no emotional impact in the movie left. By denying us any knowledge of who the people involved are before they so dramatically enter our lives, by insisting that we experience the events on the plane (and on the ground) as if we were really there and it were happening to us, Greengrass draws a veil over our foreknowledge, and allows us to experience the shock of the terrible events of that day as though they were happening in real time. And that is the only thing that makes the movie a success.

There is much not to like in this movie, and it would be easy to dismiss it (as Manohla Dargis, being her usual obtuse self, does in the New York Times) as being unnecessary (as though everything else we watched were absolutely essential), but you have to see the movie in context. Or rather, it's because you can't see it out of context, because it is entirely impossible to separate your response to the movie as a work of cinematic art, from your response to the events that it describes, that you have to admire Greengrass 's achievement. There are many, many ways in which this could have been a really bad movie – overly sentimental, overly cliched, overly exploitative. Greengrass is walking an extraordinarily thin line here – a step wrong one way and he would be accused of using the suffering of others for his own ends, a step wrong the other way and he would be pilloried for downplaying the courage of the passengers on United 93. That he comes through without doing either is a minor miracle by itself – one that is achieved through a combination of overwhelming empathy (Greengrass even manages to find pity in his heart for the terrorists) and absolute honesty. This is not a dramatic film – it is a viscerally undramatic film – and that's why it works.

Perhaps the finest bits of the movie come in the first half, and are not necessarily centred in the flight itself. For me, the most compelling and moving parts of the film were the ones that showed the people on the ground – the FAA, the ATC, the military – all struggling to come to grips with what was happening. If United 93 succeeds it is because it takes one so convincingly back to the bewilderment of those initial moments, showing you the ways in which ordinary men and women struggled to come to terms with this new reality that had dropped in on them literally out of their blue. There is a moment in the film where the people on the ground, who are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on, watch the second plane ram into the world trade centre, live on CNN. Greengrass captures perfectly the shock of that event, the feeling of being struck by an almost physical blow, the head-shaking instant as you try to convince yourself to believe, against every instinct of self-preservation, that this could really be happening, that the world could really have shattered this completely. It is the inevitability of that confusion, of that struggle to comprehend, that is this movie's main emotional takeaway.

Once the action switches almost entirely to the plane (Greengrass having established that nothing the people on the ground can do is going to save the people on United 93) the movie, in my view, loses its authentic feel. The problem is twofold. First, no doubt because it would be an issue for the families of the passengers,Greengrass is reluctant to show any dissent with the idea of storming the cabin and bringing down the terrorists. This seems incredibly hard to believe. Sure, the passengers have found out (through telephone calls home) that the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon have been hit, but these are garbled accounts heard from friends and family – can we really believe that in thepre -9/11 world, when such an attack was unthinkable and conventional wisdom was always to offer no resistance to hijackers, that the passengers would, almost without exception have agreed to the almost certainly suicidal storming of the cockpit in the face of four armed men, one of whom as in possession of what may or not have been a bomb. Surely there would have been more resistance to the idea, surely someone would have objected more strongly, argued that they should sit tight and not provoke the terrorists.Greengrass has the passengers make a few token comments to this effect, but in general, the speed at which this group of total strangers get their heads around the idea that they are doomed and arrive at a consensus about what should be done about it is uncanny, and a little too quick to seem true.

The second false note that Greengrass introduces is the idea that the passengers were actually trying to take back the controls of the plane and have a pilot among them fly them to safety. Again, this seems unlikely – you would have to be really credulous to believe that you could wrest the controls of a plane from four armed terrorists bent on self-destruction without them finding some way of taking you out with them. And to assume that the passengers of United 93 had any real hope of this seems to me to be detracting needlessly from their actions. The least we can do is do them the honour of believing that they knew they had no hope of survival, that they were going to die, and the only thing they could really achieve by attacking the cockpit was to ensure that they didn't end up taking many, many other people with them.

There are many other things I could quibble with in the movie. Greengrass, it seems to me, goes out of his way to build parallels between the terrorists and the passengers, showing the more human side of the hijackers, but it should be obvious to everyone that this is a false analogy. The hijackers are there because they chose to be, the passengers are not.Greengrass also spends considerable time detailing the inadequate response by the higher powers (the President, for instance, is conspicuously missing throughout the movie) and this again seems besides the point – not to mention a little unfair. There are a lot of reasons to criticise Bush & co., but their failure to respond in a timely and adequate manner to a crisis quite unprecedented in scale and unimaginable in horror is surely the least of them.

As I said, I could quibble with much in this film, but it wouldn't change the fact that I can't begin to imagine a movie that could do a better job of telling the story that it tells. United 93 is one of the most stunninglyimpactful and unbelievably authentic films I have ever watched – a movie that for its sympathy, for its humanity and for its honesty seems almost unsurpassable , and that should be roundly celebrated if only for its rigorous commitment to not turning the very real horrors of 9/11 into melodrama. Whether this movie should have been made at all is a question of personal preference. That it could have been made better if it was going to be made at all is hard to argue.

That death had undone so many Monday, May 1 2006 

Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur! – mon semblable, – mon frere!”

– T. S. Eliot The Waste Land

It does not pay to disturb the dead. Because the dead are not simply a collection of loose bones that can be thrust into a body bag. The dead are memory. They are tiny worlds of feeling that have been lulled very gently to sleep and must not be woken again. When you open a grave, when you violate a tomb, you disturb the spirit – not the spirit of ectoplasmic beings that keep watch over us, but the spirit that lurks in the hearts of men. And therein lies a great risk.

This is the central idea of Ismail Kadare’s The General of the Dead Army. The plot of the novel is simple – 20 years after the end of the Second World War, an Italian general is despatched to Albania to recover the bodies of the Italian soldiers who lie buried there. On the surface, this is a petty, administrative task, but it is one charged with great emotional significance, and the difficulties attendant upon it, both physical and psychological prove to be different from and more taxing than the General had first expected.

To begin with, simply retrieving the bodies themselves is no easy matter. The mountain terrain is inhospitable, the bodies have been buried for years and are often hard to locate, there is the risk of infection, and the people of the country are naturally hostile and suspicious. The Italians are the enemy, after all, twenty years of peace have not dulled the local population’s memory of that, and the General himself is acutely aware of being in a foreign land, among a different people. Fortunately, the General and his party come well-equipped with lists and maps, so that their task goes on apace, though it still proves less tractable than they had anticipated.

The larger difficulty is emotional. From the day he is first given the task of bringing these bodies back, the General finds himself drawn into the world of the dead. Relatives and friends of those who lie buried in Albania show up at the General’s doorstep, punctual as ghosts. He is made witness to their loss, forced to share in their memories of that bygone time. As his work in Albania progresses, moreover, the General uncovers not only the corpses of the dead, but also their stories. The story of the whores brought into a small Albanian town to service the soldiers (as told by a local), the story of a young deserter set down in his diary, the story of a group of soldiers guarding a bridge. Spending night after night under canvas with only a gloomy priest for company, the General ends up dwelling almost exclusively on the dead, until he finds himself using their very words in the letters he writes home to his wife. As he relates more and more to the men whose bodies he is recovering, the illusion slowly grows in him that he is in fact the General of an army of dead men, that these corpses in their body bags are his ghost troops. The General’s mission becomes, for him, a way of reliving history. He makes grandoise plans for how he would have won the battles that other generals lost, he finds himself sharing the shame of his army’s defeat all those decades ago, feels the loss of his country’s youth, of all those young men so needlessly wasted, is exposed again to the enmity of the people, to their bitterness, their accusations. All the weight of the terrible history of War lights upon his back.

There is a scene in the novel where the General is holding the remains of a dead soldier in a bag and thinks: “There is nothing in the world as light as you are now. Six or seven pounds at the most. And yet you are breaking my back!”. It is this other, more spiritual weight that weighs heavy upon the General.

Ultimately, The General of the Dead Army is a novel about guilt. The guilt of having sent so many young men to war and not having been able to protect them. The guilt of coming by now, so many years later, to disturb their silence, to take them from the land where they lie sleeping and cart them back to their homelands whether they like it or not. The guilt of all the atrocities committed against the civilian population in the name of the war effort, and of knowing that to those who suffered all those in uniform are the same. The guilt of not having been part of the war effort yourself, not having run the same risks that you exposed others to.

All this guilt, all this emotion, accumulating over two years of work, becomes too much for the General. He ends up a broken man, oppressed by memories and shadows, feeling himself constantly accused, constantly found wanting. He grows supersititous, incoherent; and Kadare, with exquisite skill, follows him into his increasingly disjointed and hallucinatory world, so that the clean narrative of the early part of the novel slowly gives way to a more frantic, more fractured style, where impressions dominate ideas and shadows become living ghosts. The final chapters of the novel are a spectacular read, because they recreate so perfectly the dissonant, panicked state of mind that the General finds himself in.

But if The General of the Dead Army is a fascinating psychological exploration, it is also a deeply metaphoric novel, a lovely meditation on the nature of history and of war. As the General relives the experiences of soldiers and civilians from twenty years ago, Kadare explores the ways in which we come to terms with the past, the wounds it leaves us with. The General’s guilt, his shame, his fear, his anger – these are all emotions we all have towards our own past, except where we are content to leave them buried, the General is forcing himself to dig them up.

The General of the Dead Army is also, of course, a book about the Albanian people, albeit one told from an outsider’s perspective. Again and again, Kadare emphasizes the resilience of the Albanian people, the way that the harshness of both their geography and their history has forged a national character of hardihood, of simple yet stubborn pride.

Comparisons with Gogol, given the book’s plot, are of course, inescapable. But the writer I was often reminded of was Hemingway. That may have a lot to do with the fact that the Albania that Kadare describes feels like a close country cousin of Hemingway’s Spain, but there are other similarities in style and tone – a matter of fact brutality, the lack of overt sentiment, a combination of an appreciation of the great pity of war with a taste for the violent and the macabre. Towards the latter half of the book Kadare’s style changes, becomes more experimental than anything Hemingway ever wrote, more like Kundera without the philosophical digressions, but early on in the book there were entire sections where I found myself remembering For Whom the Bell Tolls.

At any rate, The General of the Dead Army is a fine book – one that leaves you with a deep sense of disquiet and a sadness in your heart that is like music. After I was done with the book I sat and listened to the second movement of Beethoven’s Eroica. It seemed the right thing to do.