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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What is time!


I’ve read some books!

Not in itself something which is generally worthy of note, but given the strange eating up of time by moving into the new house, having enough time to sit down and concentrate for enough time to plough my way though a new tome!

“In Pale Battalions” by Robert Goddard has a back cover studded with reviews which all seem to pick on the storytelling quality of Goddard’s style as the most impressive quality of the novel. It takes the character of a woman who has recently lost her husband and who is going on a holiday to France with her daughter. This is the setting for a Russian Doll type of narrative where the opening story lead on to another and then in turn leads on etc etc.

The graphic on the cover of a field of poppies with a white cross and the use of the quotation in the title encouraged me to think that the story might be about the First World War and part of it was, but the main thrust of the narrative is the working out of a complicated love story stretching through the generations.

The story telling in this novel is competent and the complexity of the narrative is handled well, but what is not truly satisfying is the narrative voice of each of the people telling the story. Admittedly the story is recalled by a central character, but I found the lack of a series of distinctive voices frustrating.

The novel was compelling and I read it with enthusiasm. It was a good old fashioned read, well constructed and crafted.

The second was more interesting but less of a page turner. Lucia Graves’ “A Woman Unknown: stories from a Spanish life” traces the life of a woman who although with British parents grew up mainly in Spain and in Catalonia learning Spanish and Catalan yet sensing that she was not fully part of any of the cultures that she was experiencing.

Her narrative (which is made more interesting to me because she is the daughter of the writer Robert Graves) seeks to understand her life in terms of the cultural understanding she has gained through the years and through the experiences of her life. Her description of being a Protestant girl of agnostic parents in a Roman Catholic school at the time of Franco is fascinating.

She traces her thoughts and emotions through various noteworthy experiences in her life and through the process of studying Spanish in Oxford; marriage to a Catalan and the death of her father.

She is constantly interesting and to those who now the areas that she is describing it is a constant source of fascination. She links her experience of dislocation with the historical mistreatment of the Jews of Girona – another instance of a people with real links with Spain yet not allowed to be of Spain. A book well worth a read.

Whether the same can be said for Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “Monsters: History’s most evil men and women” you will have to decide for yourself. You have to understand that this is a book which is written for me! It has a wide historical sweep, it is bitty, none of the entries are longer than a few pages and it has little boxed inserts which I find compulsive. The range of people or ‘monsters’ is intriguing and it is impossible not to check the index to see if your own personal favourites are included amongst the human trash included.

All of the obvious ones are there but their lives are so shortened that some of the simplifications that are necessary to create an enjoyable minute’s read make you wonder about the intellectual rigour of the writing.

One disturbing effect of reading about so much horror is that some of the most famous and iconic names fade into insignificance when you realize that they haven’t killed (in disgusting ways) more than a million of their fellow men! As Stalin or Lenin or another mass murderer said killing over a certain number of people is just a statistic.

I myself have written to the son of one of the people in the book. I wrote a very polite letter addressing the man by his official title and asking a few well phrased questions (without mentioning torture as instructed by Amnesty International) and Baby Doc Duvallier didn’t deign to reply. Come to think of it, none of the murdering bastards holding high positions in their respective countries ever did reply to my letters. I only hope that the number of politely worded middle class missives had some effect on raising the profile of some of the prisoners of conscience held by the powerful scum around the world.

I said to Emma that ‘Monsters’ was basically a toilet book and, having reading profile after profile in a depressing catalogue of depravity, I am more than ever convinced that my original assessment was correct So if you have a spare shelf in your bathroom, you know what to buy!

Tomorrow – the Pauls!
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