Friday, 6 May 2022

No 127 - Can one make sense of Ukraine?


So rivetted am I by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I actually dreamed I was there, helping someone who was rescuing displaced cats. It may yet prove to be the third great crisis of our lifetimes, along with the pandemic and the even more destructive ecological meltdown. I knew little about the region, except that it had been invaded and fought over innumerable times – so often that historian Timothy Snyder titled his book on it “Bloodlands”. So here are a few things I found.

Putin’s fateful, appalling and ill-conceived invasion is just one of a very, very long series. 

In the year 370 it was the Huns.

In 882 it was the Varangians (no, I’m not sure where they came from, either).

In 1240, the Mongols sacked Kyiv; many fled to other countries. Five years later, the papal envoy Giovanni da Pian del Carpine reported:

"They destroyed cities and castles and killed men and Kyiv, which is the greatest Russian city they besieged; and when they had besieged it a long while they took it and killed the people of the city. So when we went through that country we found countless human skulls and bones from the dead scattered over the field. Indeed it had been a very great and populous city and now is reduced almost to nothing. In fact there are hardly two hundred houses there now and the people are held in the strictest servitude."[

In the 1470s a then-powerful Lithuanian/Polish combination did it again. At that time, ‘Rus’ to the east barely registered on the map.

In 1793 Catherine the Great invaded Ukraine, just one of several Russian autocrats who would exert dominance over an area that at one time formed the very heart of Russia, at other times opted for fierce independence, and at others still were as nasty to their neighbours as anyone. The tsarist ambition for a Greater Russia in some ways was merely continued by the Communists after 1917. This new-ish national sensibility was forged in contradistinction from the ‘West’, upon whose cultural coat-tails Russia had long and ambivalently dangled. The West helped stoke Russian antipathy and fear by themselves invading occasionally: Napoleon in 1812, others a century later in the aftermath of World War I, when Russia endured a gruelling civil war. Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny wrote:

In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kyiv changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food. [Quotations courtesy Wikipedia]

One of the worst was in 1941, when the Nazis rumbled through, levelling cities and shipping tens of thousands off to the gas-ovens. The Soviet response and backwash over Ukraine was almost as vicious; and it wasn’t long before Stalin’s policy of compulsory collectivisation starved millions more Ukrainians to death.

So one can imagine a cold-blooded Putin saying: “Why is everyone getting so excited? This has happened before!” One can see him choosing to model his attitude on a particular moment of Russian historical pride – Peter the Great, perhaps – spiced with KGB-trained Cold War paranoia, centuries-old resentment of perceived inferiority to the West, and fears of yet another encroachment, this time by NATO. He seems motivated, in short, by a monumental myth – and as Roland Barthes argued a long time ago, such myths are the greatest motivators of all. Napoleon had his myth, too; so did the British Empire, as Caroline Elkins shows in her magisterial new book, Legacy of Violence. Such myths serve to deny, justify, legalise or cover up acts of terrible violence inflicted on subject peoples. Putin’s propaganda is nothing new; every empire, every power structure, has one.

This is not in any way to justify the present invasion, which will deliver good to no one much except the arms manufacturers. Not even to Russia. And of course the situation today, due to the presence of thousands of nuclear warheads, looks more dangerous than any of those previous occasions.

What seems most mysterious to us now, perhaps, is why so many within Russia (and some outside) seem to swallow that myth and propaganda, even publicly support it.

I found myself going back to a book I’d read maybe 30 years ago, by the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslav Milosz. Poland has been through much the same turbulent history as neighbouring Ukraine, the same spasms of national and linguistic pride and independence, the same kind of incorporation into that one-time ‘Greater Russia’ that Putin seems set on reinstating. In his book The Captive Mind, first published in 1953, Milosz explores in detail how complex is that ‘submission’ to the autocratic state. Not a simple belief in the propaganda, not a simple sense of numbed victimhood, not even a simple survival strategy for potential dissenters; but something of all of these, varying from individual to individual. Milosz is concerned mostly with intellectuals and writers, especially from Poland, who had to find ways of accommodating themselves to Stalin’s hyper-surveillance. (To understand just how intense that surveillance was, read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, or Orlando Figes’ grimly absorbing study of everyday lives under Stalin, The Whisperers. There are moments I feel a little in sympathy with Putin’s sneering at ‘the decadence of the West’, but however messy and hypocritical democracy can get, the Stalin-style alternative is just unacceptably terrifying.)

What strikes me about Milosz’s book, even after 70 years, is how often it’s eerily prescient of today’s situation, unsettlingly parallel. Here are just some of the passages I picked out. A key component of the syndrome is Russia’s suspicious disdain for the West – far from new to Putin & Co. Despite the West’s technological superiority,

[The] Eastern intellectual asks, what goes on in the heads of the Western masses? Aren’t their souls asleep ... isn’t Christianity dying out in the West, and aren’t its people bereft of all faith? ... Don’t they fill that void with chauvinism, detective stories, and artistically worthless movies? ...  One has but to read Tolstoi’s What is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. [The Russian] must break that habit of imitation which was inevitable as long as French, English or Belgian capital, investing in the mines, railroads and factories [add, today, oil and gas] of the ‘Eastern Marches’, pushed its books, films and styles upon them. ... “

According to Stalin’s version of Marxism, the West is doomed: “The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of indecision.” [Trump? Johnson?] Hence, the average Russian is subjected to propaganda that “tries by every means to prove that Nazism and Americanism are identical in that they are products of the same economic conditions...” Putin seems to have bought this line entirely, relying on outdated philosophers who punt a Russian version of America’s “Manifest Destiny”, but a faith avowedly founded on pure reason and historical inevitability.

“The philosophy of History emanating from Moscow is not just an abstract theory; it is a material force that uses guns, tanks, planes, and all the machines of war and oppression. All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New [Stalinist, or Putinist] Faith. ... What is happening in Russia and the countries dependent upon her bespeaks a kind of insanity, but it is not impossible that Russia will manage to impose her insanity upon the whole world ...”

Milosz writes of the 1950s, but it is uncannily being reproduced today. Under such pressures of history, surveillance, external curbing of dissenting voices, internal self-censorship and guilt, little wonder that many find ways to ‘go along’, quietly harbouring any doubts while publicly writing odes to the Leader. It is not just a matter of lying to save one’s skin or position.

 “Finding oneself in the midst of an historical cyclone, one must behave as prudently as possible ... All [one’s] intellectual and emotional capacities are put to the test. ...What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectuals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure. [And] even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.”

This gives just a flavour of the subtlety and complexity with which Milosz unpacks the mentalities of people, especially poets and intellectuals, who find themselves caught up in the periodic whirlwinds of the “bloodlands.” It makes the courage of Pussy Riot and Navalny all the more remarkable – but look what’s happened to them. I suppose if there is any hope arising from this tortuous history, it’s that although these cities have been flattened time and again, time and again they’ve also been rebuilt. May the present-day sites of horror – the suddenly-household names of Kyiv, Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol – be similarly restored.

As for Milosz the poet, he refuses to give in to despair.

“The war years taught me that a man should not take a pen in his hands merely to communicate to others his own despair and defeat. This is too cheap a commodity; it takes too little effort to produce it for a man to pride himself on having done so. Whoever saw, as many did, a whole city reduced to rubble – kilometres of streets on which there remained no trace of life, not even a cat, not even a homeless dog – emerged with a rather ironic attitude towards descriptions of the hell of the big city by contemporary poets, descriptions of the hell in their own souls. A real “wasteland” is much more terrible than any imaginary one. ... Today the only poetry worthy of the name is eschatological [pertaining to the ‘end times’], that is, poetry which rejects the present inhuman world in the name of a great change.”

One has to wonder if we're not in similar eschatological times, history repeating itself, to be sure - but with contemporary variations.


Monday, 21 March 2022

No 126 - Three fabulous forest books


For forests, every day is World Forest Day.
Forests are millions of years older than we are, fundamentally responsible for creating an atmospheric, moisture and temperature regime that made our evolution and our present-day existence possible. If they are not exactly sentient beings, as some argue, they are certainly communities of intricately interlinked organisms of miraculous complexity and beauty, centuries in the making, downed in minutes. For millennia, humans have cut forests back and exploited them and failed to allow them to replenish themselves, along with their multiple inhabitants, from butterflies to bonobos – perhaps the richest sites of biodiversity the planet has ever known. Our ecological knowledge is now vast, the scale of anthropogenic catastrophe incontrovertible, yet governments and multinationals, exploiting the impoverished and servicing the rich, continue – stupidly, blindly, insanely, even criminally – to raze forest areas the size of small countries every single day. The unrelenting destruction of the Amazon rainforest is just one prominent example. My own iconic image is the heartbreaking one of an Indonesian gibbon swatting futilely at the massive blade of a machine a hundred times its size as it ploughs down the last of its homely trees.

Of course few of us are not complicit, as we pursue however modestly lifestyles dependent on power, transport, wood, beef, soy beans, palm oil. But one does what one can, contributing rescue funds, promoting local forest growth, and raising awareness. In the spirit of the last, here are three extraordinary books about forests I wholeheartedly recommend.

Nearly thirty years ago I discovered Simon Schama’s hefty book, Landscape and Memory (1995). (Since then the hyper-prolific Schama has become well-known for his books and television series on the history of England, on art, on eighteenth-century Holland, on the French Revolution, on the story of the Jews, etc etc.) Landscape and Memory launched me in one long stride into the line of study that has dominated my academic career: the intricate and unavoidable links between culture and nature, between trees, rocks, waters and literary expressions of individual and even national identities. As he puts it:

 Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock. ... [O]nce a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, or making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery.

 In one arresting section, Schama explores the role in Polish self-consciousness of the Bialowieza forest and its iconic European bison. This is ancestral territory for Schama, and the figure of the Jewish forester looms large. Though he could find little about his direct forebears, Schama visits the region, tramping through the forests and sampling bison steak, leavening the riotous historical detail with poetic personal experience. Most intriguing for me was how the 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz re-imagined the forests and elevated them into Polish national icons. These central Eastern areas – Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine – are what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands”, swept over by ravening hordes of insurgents for centuries, shifting borders, names and allegiances from year to year, riven with internecine spats and sundry rebellions. Putin is just the latest in a long series of devastating  invaders. Through it all, the forest and its bison have survived, though on an increasingly diminished scale. Ironically, they survived in part through the efforts of another invader, the Germans of 1941 – or more precisely Nazi No.2, Herman Goering, who declared Bialowieza a preserve to satisfy his own hunting proclivities.

As Schama discusses, this intersects with a German forest mythology. This one goes all the way back to the Roman historian Tacitus’ book Germania, in which he describes, not altogether disapprovingly, the leader of wild, wily, tough, almost hunter-gatherer forest tribes, Arminius. For the next two millennia, this natural, organic, self-sufficient  character would be periodically updated and refurbished to become a central mythic pillar of the German self-image through literature and art, even as agricultural and technological Germany became in reality something quite different. All this – and much more – is delivered in scintillating style, swarming with vivid historical detail and life, leavened by Schama’s characteristic dry wit. It’s historical writing at its very best.

Forests occupy only a third of Landscape and Memory, but they are the whole of Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, Forests: The shadow of civilisation (1992). While overlapping a little with Schama, Harrison ranges more widely over world culture and literature, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Joseph Conrad in twentieth-century Congo, from Plato to Wordsworth. As he outlines it, the forest was long that against which civilisation set itself. From being mere clearings in the midst of forbidding and frightening wilderness, human ‘civilisation’, now technologically dominant and exponentially expanding, has all but overwhelmed that wildness. Fear remains, though, as I learned from citified students I’d take out into our own tiny forest remnants for some practical ecocritical experience. So Harrison centrally asks: “What is that antagonism, however imaginary, all about? Why does the law of civilisation define itself from the outset against the forest? For what obscure religious reasons is our humanity, in its traditional alienation from the animal kingdom, incompatible with this aboriginal environment?” He proposes, in part, that the “destructive impulse with respect to nature all too often has psychological causes that go beyond the greed for natural resources or the need to domesticate an environment”. Two chapter headings capture the book’s trajectory: “From mythic origins to deforestation”, and  “The ecology of finitude.” Once upon a time the forests might have seemed endless (as they did to the early American settlers  depicted in Annie Proulx’s epic forest novel Barkskins; axe and saw destroyed that illusion with frightening rapidity.) Deforestation and its discontents are not new: Harrison quotes Plato, lamenting the deforestation of Greece (to build warships) four centuries before Christ:

 In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body ... all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.

Harrison ranges from the forest-friendly, goddess-centred ancient myths, through the forest exile of Nietzsche’s tortured philosopher-character Zarathustra, through mediaeval forest law and lore (Robin Hood’s context) to twentieth-century poets such as AR Ammons and the Italian Andrea Zanzotto. If at times Harrison seems to me to over-read, to over-psychologise his material, so that I find myself mildly disagreeing with his reading of texts I know well, such as Dante’s Inferno or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s nevertheless bewitching, challenging, educative stuff. A profound and unsettling work that leaves one in no doubt of the cultural (let alone real) importance of forests down the ages.

Finally, a most recent novel that actually matches up to the cover blurbs – “Exhilarating”, “Extraordinary”. American novelist Richard Powers’ The Overstory has taken the world by storm, having won that most prestigious and reliable of prizes, the Pulitzer. It has been doing the rounds of the book clubs, and has already been incorporated by university colleagues into their syllabi. Many other readers I’ve met, having read the book, have gone straight back to the beginning to start it again. It might have just a couple too many characters and strands in it; I suppose it is rather within that tradition of American novels that are as vast and sprawling as the continent, encompassing multiple plots, multiple locales and multiple ethnicities (think John dos Passos’ U.S.A., Tom Wolfe’s Time and the River, Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, Don de Lillo’s Underworld.) But who cares when the writing is this good, the invention of character so sharp and plausible, the dialogue so deft and funny, the philosophical underpinnings so unflinching and wise.

All the characters are in some way involved with trees, even when they don’t particularly think they are. They include a woman who makes it her life’s work to prove that trees communicate with each other; activists who camp in the topmost branches of a centuries-old redwood to prevent it being reduced to planks by commercial loggers; three generations of farmers who daily photograph what turns out to be America’s last chestnut tree, the rest having been blighted by invasive disease; a computer gamer. I have not encountered another writer who seems so effortlessly to capture contemporary society in both its material and techno-virtual complexity, and to expose so trenchantly its pretensions and idiocies. (The same can be said of his slimmer, but still devastating, parallel novel Bewilderment.)

Above all, with awe-inspiring research and knowledge, insight and wisdom, he illuminates the life, antiquity, complexity, vivacity, variety, beauty and vital importance of trees. I was raised in bush and mountain forest, so I needed no persuasion; but it would take an extraordinarily numb reader of any background not to feel seriously changed by this book, to have their view of trees fundamentally enhanced and illuminated. I’m far from convinced that any book or artwork, no matter how good, will radically deflect blind mass humanity from its present catastrophic course, but at least we have this one. I’ll leave you with just one representative passage, so juicy, oddball and wise, lessons so deftly refracted through character, you could take almost each sentence and meditate on its implications for a week.

 They drive from farm to farm, between last year’s blights and next year’s vanishing topsoil. He shows her extraordinary things: the spreading cambium of a sycamore that swallowed up the crossbar of an old Schwinn someone left leaning against it decades ago. Two elms that draped their arms round each other and became one tree.

            “We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about some of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree. [...] Here! Look at this. Look at this!” [...]

            Her father is her water, air, earth and sun. He teaches her how to see a tree, the living sheath of cells under every square inch of bark doing things no man has yet figured out. [...] Watching the man, hard-of-hearing, hard-of-speech Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze. As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.

 “Humility and looking”. Amen.



Saturday, 19 February 2022

No 125 - Nancy Farmer's Zimbabwean novels


No one I speak to
in this neck of the book world seems to have heard of Nancy Farmer. This is despite the popularity of her chosen genre, Young Adult fantasy; despite the fact that her novels have won a string of prestigious prizes; and despite the fact that several of them are set in southern Africa, specifically Zimbabwe.

She was born in 1941 in Phoenix, Arizona, but as a younger woman spent some 17 years in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, mostly doing entomological work – largely spiders in Mozambique, then tsetse fly control in the Zambezi Valley. (She and I must have come close to crossing paths at Rukomeche near Mana Pools, an area I also haunted for a time.) During this period she met Harold Farmer, then teaching English at the University in Harare, marrying him after a whirlwind courtship (a week, according to Wikipedia, exaggerating slightly). Harold was himself proving to be an excellent poet, publishing a slim volume with Longmans, Absence of Elephants, which I’ve written about elsewhere

Much affected by story-telling traditions among the peoples of Zimbabwe, Nancy went on to be a prolific, charming, wide-ranging and acclaimed novelist, writing mostly for the young of various ages. Her topics and settings vary widely, too, from the futuristic The House of the Scorpion, set in the violent Mexico/USA borderlands (possibly my personal favourite), to the more conventional Sea of Trolls (2004) with its northern panoply of trolls, dragons etc. I’ve said ‘charming’ and ‘conventional’, but that’s not quite right. On the one hand, Farmer doesn’t spare her youngsters the tough realities – Vikings throw babies into fires, girls menstruate, and so on, though she’s never gratuitous; on the other hand, she consistently obliges her readers to question prejudice and preconceptions. So, for example, the young protagonist of Sea of Trolls, kidnapped from Lindisfarne by Vikings, discovers they are not all as bad as they’ve been portrayed; in turn, the Vikings vilify and stereotype trolls, who also prove to be rather more complex, and so on. In this subtlety and quiet challenge, Farmer makes a writer like JK Rowling look decidedly derivative.

As befits most YA fiction, her protagonists are themselves youngsters, presented with various challenges and put through the mill of sundry adventures. This is true of her Zimbabwean novels, too. The slenderest and ‘youngest’ of three I’ll look at here is The Warm Place (1995). It’s not set in Zimbabwe as such, or even Africa more broadly, as it involves the capture of a young giraffe and her incarceration in a San Francisco zoo.  She finds herself able to collude with a chameleon who teaches her how to disappear, a rat with an aristocratic name and a brusquely dismissive manner but a good heart, and a wee lad who is one of the few humans able to speak with animals in the Common Tongue – all devising a plan to smuggle themselves back to Africa – which is, of course, the Warm Place. It’s funny, fanciful and economical even as it’s scathing about exploitative humans in general and the wildlife trade in particular. This might explain why it was more popular in Africa than in the US. Despite its fanciful elements, it’s observant about real animal behaviour and ecology, without ever being overtly didactic. Here as elsewhere in the novels, Farmer delights in slipping in African-style folktales, sometimes based on Biblical or Talmudic stories, lightly delivered by characters to each other, with both entertaining levity and ethical weight – the very essence of fine story-telling.

Two novels firmly set in Zimbabwe
are aimed at older readers and are more substantial; indeed they are satisfying reading for Ancient adults as much as for Young ones. A Girl Named Disaster (1996) begins with twelve-year-old Nhamo (‘disaster’ in Shona), living on the northern border of Zimbabwe with Mozambique, on one of the rivers running into Cabora Bassa dam. It’s an area familiar to Farmer from her entomological studies, and it shows. She also got to know local Shona culture, its artefacts and family structures, pretty well. Always a tricky business, writing into a culture not one’s own, but she manages it without condescension or stereotyping. (For non-Shona readers Farmer supplies several pages of glossary, cultural notes and extensive research bibliography.) Nhamo finds herself embroiled in arguments about a witchcraft event (this spiritual dimension is depicted as authentically crucial in the community even as members disagree about it), eventuating in her betrothal to a ghastly man. (Such arranged child marriages remain an issue in some parts.) On her grandmother’s advice, she escapes in order to find her long-absent father back in Zimbabwe. The Mozambique civil war growls in the background, hippos guard the river. The father doesn’t sound very promising, either… Suffice it to say things don’t go quite as planned. It’s all about what Farmer identifies as her main thrust, self-reliance.

Nhamo’s journey is epically unlikely, I suppose, but delivered in grounded and realist mode. The other novel is a rather different kettle of fantasy. The Ear, The Eye and The Arm (1994) won the most prestigious prize in this field, the Newbery Honor, among others, and is set in a futuristic Harare. The year is 2194, but the city is still recognisable in its general layout, its divisions between rich and heavily fortified northern suburbs and ‘township’ trashlands ruled by a shadowy matriarch. The transport system is suitably modernised, but Mbare retains the colourfully chaotic character of the informal market. And now the son of a General has been kidnapped … The eponymous body parts are in fact the three members of a detective agency hired to find him; each has a wildly distended organ appropriate to his role. But of course it is a trio of youngsters who are central to the search, racketing through various vicissitudes and strange hidden realms of the vast city. It’s all wonderfully inventive, easily visualisable, oscillating between terror and hope, disappointment and idealism, in its path to its inevitably satisfactory and triumphant ending. In that, at least, Farmer conforms to the comedic conventions of YA fiction.

It's all lovely stuff,
with deft, often funny dialogue and vivid description, and a natty weirdness quite unlike anything else to have emerged from Zimbabwe. Even in the novels, as in her slightly scrambled, candid and self-deprecating self-portrait on her official website,  you sense behind it a sweetly maverick person it would be wonderful to meet. Perhaps one might, in the deserts of Arizona, where apparently she and Harold (I hope) still live.


See for more books and paintings.