Rogers, Douglas: Two Weeks in November

Seven members of the group gathered on a pleasant August evening, some arriving slightly breathless from the exertions of climbing a couple of flights of stairs to the host’s grand flat.

The book had been headlined as “The astonishing untold story of the operation that toppled Mugabe.” Our proposer had been inspired to read more after listening to 2 episodes of the book on BBC 4’s “Book of the Week”. Having been duly captivated by the book he felt it worthy of our analysis.

The author had been born in Umtali, Rhodesia in 1968 to Lyn, a lawyer and Rosalind a drama teacher. He grew up on heavily fortified chicken and grape farms during the Rhodesian Bush War. He was schooled in Rhodesia and graduated with a degree in journalism in Rhodes University, South Africa. Following newspaper and radio assignments in Johannesburg he moved to London in 1994  and wrote feature and travel articles for several broadsheets. He settled in the USA in 2003 and has contributed to many of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers. In 2009 he published “The Last Resort: a Memoir of Zimbabwe” to critical acclaim. He currently teaches at the Gothan Writers Workshop.

The title of the book seemed to be appropriate as Britain could well be facing difficult times during our imminent departure from the EU at the end of October. The last two weeks of October could well prove to be of major significance for our future on these islands.

There was a long discussion about how Africa, despite its vast natural resources seems to remain in the doldrums. One member who had visited Africa several times and had met a good number of top Africans, found them to be rational and deeply intellectual. But corruption amongst leaders and expensive local wars prevented proper investment in infrastructure and distribution of wealth to the masses.

Why had Africa not thrived as much as other continents? Historically, factors such as Africa’s challenging geography prevented easy trade routes being established. There seemed to be a different work ethic compared to northern and far eastern countries. There was a theory that the short growing season in northern Europe led to greater efforts to produce food efficiently whilst in Africa there wasn’t that pressure.

Comment was made on Britain’s support of corrupt regimes who were of commercial or strategic use to us and of bestowing honours on their leaders. We had a habit of conveniently ignoring misdemeanours carried out by these administrations if it suited us. We were reminded that President Mugabe had been given an honorary degree by Edinburgh University in 1984 but this was eventually revoked after years of campaigning about his poor human rights record.

Eventually, after 45 minutes of general discussion about Africa, the group were focussed on discussing the book.

There was general agreement that the journalistic style of writing wasn’t very agreeable. Reading the book was like reading a journalist’s notebook and the narrative was poor. There was a huge cast of characters, many with multiple names.  

The story did have some exciting episodes, particularly ED’s attempts to cross the border into Mozambique, the dash to retrieve his briefcase from the border post and the highly professional neutralisation of the Police Support Unit by 1 Para special forces team. Some felt that some of the scenes beggared belief and questioned that the actions of Ellis, Kasper, Angel, Horse and Gabriel played such a major role in the eventual resignation of Mugabe.

The book did however effectively convey the chaotic nature of events, which was probably quite authentic. The influence of social media, rallying support for the march, was impressive and a modern day phenomenon. There were several hints that the Chinese might well have had some part to play in the coup. Whoever had China on their side would win. It seemed that it was no coincidence that General Chiwenga had been in China prior to his return to Zimbabwe to take control of the bloodless coup. He claims that he had no immediate aspirations to be President but unsurprisingly now sits as Vice President. The author paraphrases Milton Friedman’s statement “the important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing”. He claims that on the 18th November 2017, the wrong people, the Zimbabwean military, the country’s war veterans and elements of ZANU-PF actually did the right thing.

Rogers quotes Nelson Chamisa, President of the Movement for Democratic Change as saying “what is the point in partnering with the new regime. They are still ZANU-PF. Same bus, different driver”

For a book that purported to have been impeccably researched, there were no references. For some purists in the group, even although the book is published in the UK, the American spellings of whiskey, color and sulfur was irritating. Overall, most thought the book worthy of just about 3 stars as the author had managed to unearth some sensitive information about a very secretive operation. The book certainly stimulated a good deal of discussion.

One member of the group had earlier circulated an article about modern day Zimbabwe. Little seems to have changed for the average Zimbabwe citizen since Mugabe’s resignation. There are shortages of fuel and rioting and beatings are commonplace leading to some deaths. Internet services are suspended and Twitter is locked down. It comments that Zimbabwe needn’t be poor with its copious minerals, an educated and ambitious population and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. However, the country “is being looted by its government.” Zimbabwe was once regarded as the “breadbasket of Africa” but now is a “basket case.”

Was it the talk of food that spurred our host into offering coffee? This was duly produced accompanied by a plate groaning with delicious “brownies”.

Thus fortified, the conversation moved on to our current situation in the UK.  Many are on protest marches throughout the country. Politicians appear to be acting for themselves or their political party rather than thinking of the good of the nation. It’s not just Africa that has its problems. We have our own concerns much nearer to home and we wait with some trepidation what will happen with our two weeks in October and beyond.

Reynolds, David: The Long Shadow

Introducing “The Long Shadow” (2013), the proposer said that, as our meeting fell in the month of the centenary of the Armistice, he felt we should mark the occasion with a book about the impact of World War One on the century that followed. The David Reynolds book was the only serious candidate of which he was aware.

David Reynolds is a British historian who is Professor of International History at Cambridge. He specialises in the two World Wars  (although until now most of his book output has been about the Second) and the Cold War. He served as Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge for the academic years 2013–14 and 2014–15. A short TV series narrated by Reynolds accompanied the launch of the book, and he also lectured at the Edinburgh Festival.

In his introduction Reynolds quotes George Kennan, who characterised the First World as “the great seminal catastrophe of this century”. Kennan was struck by the “overwhelming extent” to which communism, Nazism and the Second World War were all “the products of that first great holocaust of 1914-18.”

Although the book was long, it was written with unusual clarity and incision. Reynolds was able to simplify complex ideas across a whole range of subjects with admirable brevity. If it sometimes made you pause, or was challenging, it was only because the wealth of ideas successively described left you giddy – a sort of intellectual fairground ride. The book was in many respects the history of the last century.

The general – and very enjoyable – discussion that opened up reflected the vastness of the subject matter covered by the book. It cannot be covered in a blog of acceptable length, but here are some highlights.

It was very unusual to get a writer so comfortable in writing across such a wide range of subjects. He covered military history, political history, economics, painting, poetry, literature, general culture and more. He did this across a time span of a century. And, although his major focus was Britain, he wrote very cogently about developments in Germany, France, Russia, Ireland and America. Reynolds was inclined to give both sides of an argument without overtly stating his own position, but that gave the book a welcome feel of objectivity and absence of a personal agenda.

A “terrific book” was the general view, “very enjoyable”, “enlightening and absorbing”.

But there were some notes of reservation. “At times too much detail for my taste….I would have preferred more focus on what is the shadow….I think his writing is too diffuse, and in the end I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say”.

Could we define “the shadow”? Was it loss of life, anguish, the rise of fascism, the spread of communism, the Great Depression, World War Two, the ongoing crisis in the Middle East?’ The consensus was that it was all of these and more. He had been wise in using the evocative concept of the “shadow” rather than in striving to demonstrate causation, always very difficult in considering history. He was talking about impact in a general sense. And the word “shadow” – for which 16 meanings are given in the OED! – is not necessarily pejorative.

Another reservation was that “the structure was a bit confusing (Part One ‘Legacies’; Part Two ‘Refractions’), and it led to a degree of repetition”. But for most the structure was fine.

Irritatingly we found Reynolds hardly put a foot wrong in his grasp of the bewildering array of subjects he covered, whether on concept or on detail. For a book of history to deprive us of the satisfying opportunity to pick nits is rare indeed. Finally, however, our resident statistician claimed to have nailed him – Reynolds had asserted that German South West Africa (today Namibia) was roughly the same area as England and Wales combined, whereas we reckoned it was 6 times bigger!

Occasional shafts of ironic humour brighten the narrative, such as:

A year after the Armistice, Sir Henry Wilson, chief of the imperial general staff, fumed ‘We have between 20 and 30 wars raging in different parts of the world’, which he blamed on political leaders who were ‘totally unfit and unable to govern’. Wilson’s deputy, Gen. Sir Philip Chetwode, warned colourfully that ‘the habit of interfering with other people’s business, and of making what is euphoniously called ‘peace’, is like ‘buggery’; once you take to it you cannot stop.

The financial dimension of the War was one of the few that Reynolds did not discuss in depth. We noted the heavy financial impact on Britain of the two German wars. Britain had not been entitled to reparations after the First War, having declared war and not having been invaded, but found herself in substantial debt to the US, as it did also after WW2. British WW2 Lend Lease debts to the US were not fully repaid until the end of 2006. War bonds raised from the British public for WW1 (and earlier wars) were not repaid until 2015.

We debated the impact of World War One on religion, again one of the few subjects not tackled in the book. Had the War accelerated the decline in religious belief, which could be traced back to Darwin and beyond? We could not resolve this, noting that many in the forces and amongst the bereaved had found religion a great comfort during the War, but accepting that later reflection on the appalling violence and subsequent brutalisation might have shaken the belief of many.

An interesting fact unearthed by one of our members was that the Armistice would have been at 2.30pm on the 11th of November if Lloyd George had got his way. For Lloyd George, with characteristic egotism, wanted to announce it at 2.30 when he stood up for PM’s Questions. Sir Rosslyn Wemyss, the senior Forces member of the British Delegation, had to appeal to the King to overturn Lloyd George’s order and change it to 11am. Thereby Wemyss saved hundreds of lives, and thereby he incurred the vindictive fury of Lloyd George.

We noted that Reynolds heads a whole chapter “Evil”, which is devoted to genocide in the Nazi concentration camps. But, leaving aside that as unquestionable evil, could the Allies claim the moral high ground given some of their behaviour in other aspects of the Second World War, such as the hundreds of thousands of European citizens killed by RAF bombing, the use of flamethrowers and thermite grenades, and the use of nuclear bombs? The defence is that such tactics were necessary to win – or shorten – the War, but not all of us accepted that argument.

Reynolds is particularly strong on tracing the changing perspectives on the War in Britain, and clear-sighted on the ways in which the facts had become distorted. However, the head of the Imperial War Museum recently said that he had hoped that the commemorative efforts for the centenary of the War would lead to the popular view and the historians’ view of WW1 moving into alignment, but that they had failed to achieve that.

In conclusion, we agreed for our part with the historian John Horne’s view, quoted by Reynolds, that the Great War was “the seminal event in the cycle of violence and ideological extremism that marked the twentieth century.”

Roth, Joseph: Radetzky March

The meeting was held in the residents’ lounge of Burt’s Hotel in Melrose where seven of the members were celebrating the 10th anniversary of the MBG. After an excellent lunch in a wine shop and a walk along the Tweed (for the majority, two arrived later by bike from Edinburgh) members settled down at 5.00 pm to a two hour pre-dinner session on the book. The proximity of the bar with good local Border brewery beers on tap assisted the discussion of a book with a strong alcohol presence.

The proposer opened by saying that the MBG had already considered German novels from the Twentieth Century by Franz Kafka and Gunter Grass and he wished to introduce a novel by another writer in German, Joseph Roth. The proposer was a keen student of the pre 1914 Habsburg Empire and had discovered Roth’s work as a result. Although less well known than Kafka, Grass and Thomas Mann, he considered Roth to be in that class of writer, a judgement shared by other more eminent critics.

For example, the Best German Novels of the Twentieth Century, is a list of books compiled in 1999 in which 99 prominent German authors literary critics, and scholars of German ranked the most significant German-language novels of the twentieth century.  The group brought together 33 experts from each of the three categories. Each was allowed to name three books as having been the most important of the century ( Ranked in order, these were

  1. Robert Musil: The Man Without Qualities
  2. Franz Kafka: The Trial
  3. Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain
  4. Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz
  5. Günter Grass: The Tin Drum
  6. Uwe Johnson:  From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
  7. Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks
  8. Joseph Roth: Radetzky March
  9. Franz Kafka: The Castle
  10. Thomas Mann: Doctor Faustus

The proposer further summarised some of the principal milestones in Roth’s life (1894-1939) which can be found at   He emphasised the influence of Jewish culture, WW1 and the fall of the Hapsburg Empire, and the rise of the third Reich on his life and writing.  He explained that Roth also considered his relationship to Catholicism very important and may even have converted. Michael Hofmann states that Roth “was said to have had two funerals, one Jewish, one Catholic.” In his last years, he moved from hotel to hotel, drinking heavily. His novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker (1939) chronicles the attempts made by an alcoholic vagrant to regain his dignity and honour a debt.

As is often the case, members discussed first what translation they had read. Two had been read: one by Michael Hoffman, Roth’s main English translator, and the other by Joachim Neugroschel who had translated the Penguin Classic version. Readers of each version were enthusiastic about their translations and a comparison of some passages revealed reassuring similarities. The proposer, however, did indicate a preference for Hoffman’s use of ‘ Habsburg’ with ’b’ rather than Neugroschel’s ‘p’. It was also noted that Hoffman had translated the name for the local schnapps as 90 rather than 180 proof which Neugroschel had used.

Comparisons were made between the translations of various passages that had impressed readers’ e.g.  the return of Carl Joseph’s love letters in Chapter 4;  the physical description of Franz Joseph at the beginning of Chapter 15; the fourth sentence of the book ‘Fate had elected him for a special deed. But he then made sure that later times lost all memory of him.’

The general response to the book was enthusiastic. It was written, translated and flowed very well. There were rich, poetic scenes both of the natural and human world. It was an elegiac, poignant novel. Comparisons with Chekhov, Hardy and Joyce were made.

There were some superb set scenes suffused by Roth’s sense of the ridiculous: Solferino; the meeting between Carl Joseph and Sergeant Slama, the husband of his mistress; the sex scenes; the gambling, duels and drinking of army life; Carl Joseph’s attempt to live as a peasant; the party during which the assassination of Franz Ferdinand is revealed; the non-heroic death of Carl Joseph.

It was a male dominated novel with women in subordinate roles and there was dispute about how well the women were portrayed.

The use of the pictures of the hero of Solferino and the Emperor Franz Joseph was well done. The similarities between the two were well brought out. The proposer said he had recently been in a restaurant in Cracow which had a picture of Franz Joseph on the wall though Cracow had left the Habsburg Empire a century ago.

There was some discussion of Roth’s treatment of Jews. Roth was a Jew at a time of growing persecution but in his writing he portrayed Jews as whatever he perceived, warts and all. Some saw the book as portraying an archaic world where duels involving honour over gambling debts or love affairs occurred. The role of the army as a unifying force within the Empire was noted. One of those present said his brother-in-law had been a member of a duelling club at a German university and had the scars to prove it! The proposer volunteered that at university he had been run through some four inches during a fencing bout.

The book was a wonderful evocation of its world. Roth was not recreating a historical account of the past, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, but writing as one who lived it. He was obsessed with the events of his own time.

The book had a sense of the helplessness of the individual participants and the empire struggling against an inexorable fate. All the Trottas were incapable of action and were unable to form proper relationships.   Random chance had brought them to prominence and they had not adapted well to their new noble status. They were not alone in this; all the characters in the novel were locked into their roles, apart from perhaps the Polish Count Chojnicki.

The juxtaposition of borders and opposites, e.g. monarchy/revolution was perfectly expressed in the frontier between the two empires of Franz Joseph and the Tsar in Ukraine. Roth was a pessimist. He said his characters were not ‘intended to exemplify a political point of view- at most they demonstrate the old and eternal truth that the individual is always defeated in the end.’ Roth saw the old pre 1914 world as obsolete but the new post 1914 world was worse in many ways. He came to see the values in the old world as superior to the new.

The meeting concluded in general agreement that the book had been an excellent choice for the tenth anniversary and in a mellow mood adjourned to dinner and the bar.

Rees, Matt: A Name in Blood

There is an assumption that those attending Monthly Book Group meetings have read the book. Sometimes members find little more than unintended humour in it,caravaggio-sacrifice-isaac but almost always there is something. Often the proposer shows that there is more than the member realized. Sometimes another member provides enlightenment. Commonly the doubts of the first 50 pages are dispelled or put into perspective. No such reservations were associated with “A Name in Blood” by Matt Rees (2012). There was a sense that folk had enjoyed the read. They were relaxed rather than enquiring or confrontational.

The proposer introduced the author as having made a name for himself by writing crime novels set in Palestine. Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet had influenced him. “A Name in Blood” was, however, not chosen by the proposer because of these earlier works, but rather as a whim in a bookshop, and why not?

To write the book Rees learnt to paint, studied the artist who inspired the book, visited galleries throughout the world and was taught sword fencing. What he then produced was a novel about power, love, duplicity and patronage. His use of language was effective and sometimes shone.

Thus the artist, Michelangelo Merisi (called Caravaggio after his home town) first sees the female he would come to love:

The soles of her bare feet were turned upward as she leaned forward to brush. They were soiled in such striations of black brown and grey that he could taste the dirt on his tongue”.

To add to the significance of this vivid sentence, Caravaggio saw her when he was visiting a Cardinal in Rome and she was his menial employee.

The proposer particularly liked the challenging conversations between the artist and his patrons. These were superficially the idle creation of the author. However, nothing can obscure the contrast between the sacred subjects he was commissioned to paint and, the actual works, which for the papal aristocracy of the late Renaissance were almost heretical. Often he used prostitutes as models for sacred subjects, and did little to disguise their earthy appearance, or indeed their identity. Caravaggio was revealed in his works to be brave to the point of folly, but saved by his sincerity and his genius. Rees was thus on sure ground when he explored Caravaggio’s art through invented conversations between a sophisticated religious elite and a rebellious artist.

We had descriptions of Rome in this period:  the beauty, the sin, the grace, the vulgarity and the cruelty. The proposer enjoyed all this and everyone agreed.

We were then invited to comment. What was the title about? Was this literally to do with the signature on a painting?  Or possibly, it was thought, to reflect the gradual change from the innocence of youth to the braggadoccio of the adolescent to the imminent prospect of death, which dominates the later chapters of the novel. As to the life of Caravaggio, the group discussed his paintings, noted that he fell out of fashion for a long period, and only re-emerged in the 20th century as a true great.

What of the detective in Mr Rees? DNA tests suggest Caravaggio was buried in Porto Ercole, so was he in fact on the return journey to Rome? Why did the Knights of Malta cooperate if Rees was to blame one of their number – Roero – for executing a great artist in return for the release of the rather doubtful Fabrizio? Why was the death not investigated by one of the artist’s important friends? This prompted one of our members to raise doubts about historical novels. Is your problem whether simply to read the novel and judge it as such or check it against historical record? “It is not just my problem, it is the problem” was the reply. The group discussed this and with reference to Walter Scott and his successors as exponents of this genre. The conclusion was that we make our own choice. Did this book ring true? Yes. Let each of us decide if there is a need to know more.

The early work of the artist was contrasted with the later. The sexual preferences of the artist may have been important to some at the time, but not to all. Derek Jarman’s film from 1986 was referred to, but he had an agenda. Caravaggio’s early work had a homoerotic quality, but his later work was religious, with messages not of a sexual nature.

What, belatedly, of the characters? The main relationship is between Caravaggio and Lena. He is presented with the classic “behave and live with me, or go off and die”. The way he goes off and dies could have been taken from an Italian opera. We have the wager on the outcome of the tennis match, the numerous scenes where he is urged to pay the debt, the elegant development of the feud until a duel with Ranuncio becomes not foolish but necessary. Having been engulfed in this he does not see Lena to try to explain. He flees. This sets up the remainder of his life.

And details? Do we appreciate his work less than those four centuries ago? Yes. However, the proposer was of Italian extraction. Did he understand the work better than we did? Possibly, but we all have to understand the Bible and Greek and Roman myths to understand so much of European culture.

The proposer drew our attention to a place name in the book whose shared surname will lead some to rename his house as such in future. We noted that the camera obscura was used to help portrait painting. We also read about the make up of a tennis ball of the period, which was self indulgent, as was the detail in the duel scene. One member thought that the lack of semi colons made the prose too staccato. Did the lead in the paint make Caravaggio “hyper”? Possibly.

It was hard to focus on the novel itself, as opposed to the art, history, religion etc, and if we digressed from Matt Rees the novelist, who cares! We enjoyed ourselves.

Rushdie, Salman: The Moors Last Sigh

The proposer indicated that Salman Rushdie was no stranger. He was born in 1947 and this prompted him to write Midnights Children .The proposer had  a copy of this book autographed and  dedicated to him as a member of the 1947 club .The proposer had told Rushdie he had been  conceived in Calcutta during the Raj even though  born late and in Edinburgh .

Rushdie’s father was a rich lawyer /business man who changed his name to Rushdie after the great Muslim philosopher of medieval Spain. He was a Bombay wallah and after early education he sent Salman to Rugby School and thence to Kings Cambridge  to read History .Then Rushdie joined an advertising agency dreaming up “That will do nicely”   for American Express , “Naughty but nice”    for cream cakes and “Irresistible” for Aero chocolate .In the evenings he wrote a first book [a failure ] and then in 1981 Midnights Children which won the Booker Prize and the later Best of Bookers. This won lots of Awards and opened the way for many other talented Indian Authors, eg Vikran Seths A Suitable Boy .

After Shame a book set in Pakistan he went on to Satanic Verses .At some time it was always going to provoke Muslim ire but he doubtless did not expect the Fatwah.

Then in hiding he wrote The Moors Last Sigh .This was an important matter for us to recognise in our discussion .The proposer  met him when he appeared in 1995 in London and Edinburgh to launch the book .Security is a familiar fact now but 17 years ago it was interesting to give one’s details in advance ,be searched on arrival and then see that 10% of the audience was looking at the rest of the audience not at Rushdie .He looked in the flesh less ugly than  expected .The goggle eyes are probably made more obvious by TV studios .Also he was charming .

The proposer had not read Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s recently published book about his life in hiding after the Fatwah .There was no index so he could not see in the book shop what Rushdie  had to say about The Moor. Finally in 1995 the proposer went with his wife to India for the first time and later in the year to Granada. The Red Forts in Delhi and Agra are not too different from the Alhambra .Also they saw the spice markets and warehouses in Cochin and the Synagogue with its blue tiles .It follows that this is more than just a literary  choice for the proposer.

 The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.

Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class

because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.

Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.

 Aurora is a  complex character and , in many ways the emotional centre of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”

Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text over it.

But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”

Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he has a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals.  The comparison was made with Oscar in The Tin Drum, previously discussed by the Group.

Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group.

Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfil itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhy are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.

Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.

Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”

The underworld struggle between Fielding and Moraes’s father culminates in the murder of Fielding and the destruction of half of Bombay. Sick of this new “barbarism,” Moraes retires to Andalusia, there to confront another monster or evil, Vasco Miranda. Miranda is a Goan painter who has made a fortune selling kitsch to Westerners. Obsessively jealous of Aurora, he has stolen her Moor paintings; to reclaim them, Moraes finds his way into Miranda’s Daliesque fortress. Here Miranda imprisons him and lets him live only as long as (shades of Scheherazade) he writes the story of his life. Rushdie of course at the time of writing the book was in hiding, a form of captivity, to avoid the same fate as Scheherazade.

Locked up with Moraes is a beautiful Japanese picture restorer named Aoi who perishes; Moraes, with Miranda’s blood on his hands, escapes. It is 1993, he is thirty-six years old, but his inner clock says he is seventy-two and ready to die.

The final chapters of the book, and the opening chapter, to which they loop back, are packed (or palimpsested) with historical allusions. Moraes is not only Muhammad XI (Abu-Abd-Allah, or Boabdil, in the Spanish corruption of his name): he sees himself as Dante in “an infernal maze” of tourists, drifting yuppie zombies, and also as Martin Luther, looking for doors on which to nail the pages of his life story, as well as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, waiting for his persecutors to arrive. It is hard to avoid the impression that all the left-over analogues of the Moor fable from Rushdie’s notebooks have been poured into these chapters, which are as a result frantic and overwritten  while elementary rules of fiction, like not introducing new characters in the last pages, are ignored: Aoi is the case in point.

 As if unsure that the import of the Boabdil/Moraes parallel has come across, Rushdie glosses it as follows: Granada, in particular the Alhambra, is a “monument to a lost possibility,” a “testament…to that most profound of our needs,…for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self.”  The palimpsesting of Moraes over Boabdil supports a less trite, more provocative thesis: that the Arab penetration of Iberia, like the later Iberian penetration of India, led to a creative mingling of peoples and cultures; that the victory of Christian intolerance in Spain was a tragic turn in history; and that Hindu intolerance in India bodes as ill for the world as did the sixteenth-century Inquisition in Spain.

Rushdie pursues palimpsesting with considerable vigour in The Moor’s Last Sigh, as a novelistic, historiographical, and autobiographical device. Thus Granada, Boabdil’s lost capital, is also Bombay, “inexhaustible Bombay of excess,” the sighed-for home of Moraes as well as of the author over whose person he is written. Both are cities from which a regenerative cross-fertilization of cultures might have taken place, but for ethnic and religious intolerance.

Like Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses (1989), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel with large ambitions composed on a large scale. In its architecture, however, the Group found it disappointing. Aside from the dynastic prelude set in Cochin, and the last fifty pages set in Spain, the body of the book belongs to Moraes’s life in Bombay. But instead of the interwoven development of character, theme, and action characteristic of the middle section of what might be called the classic novel, the middle section of Rushdie’s novel makes only fitful and episodic progress. New actors are introduced with enough inventiveness and wealth of detail to justify major roles; yet all too often their contribution to the action turns out to be slight, and they slipped (or were slipped) out of the picture almost whimsically. It was also argued by some in the Group that those without a good knowledge of the history of the period both in Bombay and wider India would struggle with the narrative.

To complaints of this kind—which have been voiced with regard to the earlier books as well—defenders of Rushdie have responded by arguing that he works, and should therefore be read, within two narrative traditions: of the Western novel (with its subgenre, the anti-novel à la Tristram Shandy), and of Eastern story-cycles like the Panchatantra, with their chainlike linking of self-contained, shorter narratives. To such critics, Rushdie is a multicultural writer not merely in the weak sense of having roots in more than one culture but in the strong sense of using one literary tradition to renew another.

It is not easy to counter this defence in its general form, particularly from the position of an outsider to India. But to take a single instance from The Moor’s Last Sigh: the episode in which Moraes’s father, Abraham Zogoiby, in a fit of enthusiasm for the modern, impersonal, “management” style in business, adopts a young go-getter named Adam over Moraes as his son and heir. For some fifteen pages Adam occupies centre stage. Then he is dropped from the book. The Group found the episode unsatisfying; further, we would hazard a guess that the reason why Adam disappears is not that Rushdie is following traditional Indian models but that he is only half-heartedly committed to satirizing the business-school ethos; he abandons this particular narrative strand because it is leading nowhere.

Others disagreed, enjoying the stories of Adam and other personages who blazed briefly across the pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh and then expired. 

Such characters as Vasco Miranda or Uma Sarasvati or even Abraham Zogoiby himself provide a comparable problem. In their extravagant villainy they seem to come straight out of Hollywood or Bollywood. 

In fact Rushdie is far from being a programmatic postmodernist. For instance, he is disinclined to treat the historical record as just one story among many. We see this in his treatment of the two histories out of which Moraes’s story grows: of the Moors in Spain, and of the Jews in India. In the case of the Moors, and of Muhammad/Boabdil in particular, Rushdie does not deviate from the historical record, which is probably most familiar to Westerners from Washington Irving’s nostalgic sketches in The Alhambra. As for the Jewish communities in India, their origins are ancient and will probably never be known with certainty. However, they preserved certain legends of origin, and to these legends Rushdie adheres without embroidering, save for one superadded fiction: that the Zogoibys descend from Sultan Muhammad (called by his subjects El-zogoybi, the Unfortunate) via a Jewish mistress who sailed for India pregnant with his child. This story is specifically (through not unequivocally) singled out as an invention by Moraes in his function as narrator.


The overall reaction to the book was positive. It brought out the complexity and diversity of Indian society and history. It was a rich, extensive, humorous and complex story that was very enjoyable to read. There were reservations  ( see above) expressed by some of our number. The virtuosity and exuberance were entertaining and admirable but sometimes descended into showing off, stylistic confusion and incoherence.  Against this it was also pointed out that those writing in English but brought up outside England were able to call upon a wider range and background in their works, eg Kipling and Paul Scott in earlier times and Rushdie, Seth, Zadie Smith and others .

 Fielding is Bal Thakeray the founder of Shiv Sena see ayodhia  riots  and theBombay riots


“give up such delusive  Esperance you rotter “

Sarah “ a large full bodied  girl waiting like an undiscovered  continent, for Abrahams vessel to sail into her harbour”

Laurel and Hardon

Roth, Philip: Sabbath’s Theatre

Roth, Philip: “Sabbath’s Theatre”.  Discussed 26/7/12.

 “Then turn me inside out over your cock. Like somebody peels off a glove”. The puppet master speaks. Is this literature of the highest order, or pornography that aims to shock rather than entertain and inform? That was the main question that faced a full house of book readers of similar age who wondered where it had all gone wrong. Perhaps it had gone right?

The host and proposer suggested Philip Roth was surely not to everyone’s taste, but was very highly regarded in the USA. This was confirmed by the proportion of favourable reviews, both professional and amateur, on the e-verse. Some thought him shallow, some offensive, but most admired his quality of writing. One who did not admire his work was Carmen Calli, a feminist who resigned when Roth won the Booker International prize in 2011. Claire Bloom, his former wife had described him as a “self-involved, all-controlling misogynist”.  Not one for the ladies perhaps? Was he a man who writes for men and one who portrays his female characters as less than human? Was Nikki less than human in Sabbath’s Theater? Did the characters come alive? What about Drenka? Nikki was no-one till she came alive as an actress and as Mickey’s muse.

Overall, we did not subscribe to Calli’s idea of a woman, but maybe many women are less than Calli’s idea of a woman, irrespective of their portrayal by Philip Roth. If ever a book group needed a mixture of the sexes in discussing a book this was the time. One member noted that his wife had commented ‘Are you reading that’? Had she read it, we wondered? Did she know it by experience or reputation?

As with many books, the proposer felt that it really should be read again; he had read much more into it second time round.  Another found the outrageous sex scenes very funny. He liked the Dickensian comments on life, and the tirades against the several targets. He suggested that Roth was skilled in portraying loss, death and bereavement. The book was clearly humorous. There were brilliantly funny scenes throughout, for example the wonderful rummaging about in Deborah’s drawers, in among the panties looking for the Polaroids when Norman or Rosa the maid came in.

Again, like other books, there was a feeling that this book could be judiciously edited (like these comments … Ed.), and as such could be a greater work. There was an element of overdrive in the book, producing purple passages of prose and then away, free in one bound. Such brilliant passages ranged from sex to death to manipulation of people as puppets. They were very effective descriptions, with some of the most erotic writing in the canon. Some made comparisons to Chaucer. In those days people were much more liberal; it was much easier to write about sex.

Hold on, not everyone agrees! An alternative view was that Sabbath was a self-aggrandising s**t. Roth was, as usual, working in his own character. Another echoed that he did not enjoy the book. As he considered himself a bit puritanical, he felt exposed to the book, rather than enjoying it. Another wondered if the language was that used in a homosexual group. He compared his experience of the language in the book to meeting such a group. He also suggested that favourable criticism was jumping on the bandwagon. A discussion ensued. Was the explicit sex a shield against criticism because criticism of the writer or book would be taken as prudery? Another wondered if criticism would be construed as anti-Semitic. Was this used in the USA as a protection; was it more difficult to prosecute Jewish writers?

We turned to the main themes of the book in our view, sex and death. In the frequent visits to Drenka’s grave by a variety of suitors as well as Sabbath, these themes were explicitly linked. “Birth, and copulation, and death. That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.” (This taken from T.S. Eliot, not the book!) Other strong themes included addiction, alcohol and drug dependency. Was this more to do with obsession rather than addiction? Another suggested that, really, this was more to do with completely amoral and selfish behaviour. However, the theme of the book in suggesting that so many characters enjoyed such behaviour was subversive. Perhaps the theme of the book was the regret of lost sex, and the need for death as desire fades, as there was no sense of purpose.

Was this just porn? Certainly the telephone sex passage was written to arouse. It was also very funny and a successful literary device. In the trial scene, Roth satirised himself as the judge dismisses the ‘art’ defence out of court. This was an extremely well written scene, funny and sharp, and sad as the brave girl who defended pornography as art was bullied by the lawyer. Roth rehearsed his own literary defence for posterity, as he drew the parallel between the puppet master and real life.. There were ~45 references to Rabelais, Miller, Lawrence, etc. justifying Mickey’s life and art, and by extension Roth’s.

So this book was considered close to the bone of sexual perversion. Which other books had similar notoriety? One of us had bought “The Story of O” at the Church Jumble Sale, so that was obviously well endorsed. Another contemporary example that came to mind was the film ‘Shame’, with Michael Fassbinder as a similarly obsessed male. None of our book group was under 17, so we could all read the book and see the film. This book also explored taboos, e.g. people p***ing on each other and drinking the product. Roth addressed the issues of old people having sex. As Mickey says, you can only be young once, but you can be immature forever.

Could Mickey establish a long lasting relationship with women? His later inability through arthritis to manipulate puppets was linked to his loss of control of the female characters. The book further explored other elements of old age and loss of function.

What of Matthew, the policeman, Drenka’s son, a force for good, a noble character or the village idiot? The last passage is ironic. Matthew calls him a “filthy sick son of a bitch” maybe echoing the feminist, and some of the group’s, view on Roth. Mickey could not f**ing die, he could not leave, everything he hated was here. Do you know the addictive feeling?

Someone suggested to the proposer that a book cannot be considered good if it has to be read twice. Wow, that is some generalisation! By extension, this book should have been edited and given structure. Slightly differently, the English Literature graduate suggested a good book was enjoyed at the first read, and yet more was achieved in each reading. This was not an easy book. Can we have an easy book? Can we have a short book? Please?

Turning again to Roth’s motives, why was it written? One suggested it was just written for literary position? Was it about excess? Was it a joke on the public to see what the public would take? Could he get away with it? The general view did not support this argument.

Next, there was a pernickety diversion; perhaps so much talk about sex was becoming difficult. Can a Mitchell B25 really fly at 4848 miles per hour? Aha, so we spotted the Ferrari in Ben Hur – gotcha! (Actually, there was no Ferrari, just tyre marks… Ed.)

As the discussion concluded, a detractor suggested that Roth’s problem was to write from a very limited perspective. For example, Graham Greene would travel, meet people, absorb the atmosphere and hence write new material. Perhaps Roth would benefit from ‘getting out more’?

So the overall conclusion was a lack of a conclusion. Taking a straw poll, two or three thought the book definite rubbish; two or three were very impressed with the prose, the humour, the tilting at taboos; and the others sat on the fence. There was a uniform distribution of opinion. You will just have to read it yourself.

Rush, Christopher: Sex, Lies and Shakespeare

Well, they told me sex was being discussed in Morningside. It was so implausible that your intrepid international correspondent dropped the tequila bottle and jetted back to Scotland for the Monthly Book Group.

Just in time to hear the proposer say that the author had been recommended to him on the golf course. And indeed he already knew the author, who had briefly taught his son English, and had found him very lively, likeable and intelligent. The subject matter of the book  – coming of age in a Scottish fishing village – also linked well with the Group’s recent discussion of “The Silver Darlings”, and its forthcoming discussion of “A Dance Called America”.

Christopher Rush was born in St Monans in Fife in 1944. After primary schooling in St Monans, he went to Waid Academy in Anstruther, and this volume of his autobiography dealt with his experiences there. (Jocky Wilson, the darts player, who had just died, had also gone to Waid a few years later). Rush had read English at Aberdeen, and had excelled. He was offered a research fellowship at Cambridge, but had chosen to go into school teaching instead, and had spent his career teaching English literature in Edinburgh. He was the author of over a dozen books, comprising poetry, novels, short stories, biography and an autobiographical trilogy of which this was one volume. The film “Venus Peter” was based on one of his books.

His first wife, an author and biologist, had died in 1993. Distraught, he had travelled, following Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey” route through the Cevennes. He was now remarried – to a Russian lecturer in English literature and stylistics.

The proposer had enjoyed reading the book, and could identify with the sort of adolescent sexual experiences described (other than, alas, the climactic scene with Kirsty Miller). The use of poetry and songs helped keep the book alive. One interesting comment on the book was that he wrote better when praising people than when complaining about them. But the book rang true in showing how much one’s school experience was dependent on the individual teacher, who could have such a large inspirational or negative effect.

So what was the reaction of the Group? Well, some gazed fondly on the rosy cheeks of youth Rush conjured up; some found a pustule or two marring the youth’s complexion; and nobody seemed to agree on quite what the youth looked like.

One, for example, thought many of the experiences were magnificently vivid. For example the description of Honeybunch, the statuesque vagrant who was stripped and washed, was a breath of fresh air in the first section. Otherwise he did not much care to be reminded of sweaty 11 year olds jostling to go to the school toilets. For him, the second part of the book, once Rush had had his epiphany about Shakespeare, worked better. For another, however, the evocation of the long lost days as a young schoolboy was the most engaging part of the book.

What about the “Sex”, then? Most recognised only too clearly the adolescent fumblings of their youth, and the intense importance that minor triumphs had for them, although some had been glad to put these memories behind them. Rush certainly evoked such moments very effectively. But was there not something slightly uncomfortable about them being recreated with such relish by a man in his mid-sixties? Would the book have worked better without the epilogue bringing the much older persona of the author before us? Or had his editor merely stipulated that sex was what was needed to sell books – the Monthly Book Group had certainly been keen to read the book on the strength of the title alone.

“Lies” then? Well, perhaps in an effort to justify the catchy title (derived of course from the film “Sex, Lies and Videotape”) Rush makes a few comments about the “lies” of his early spinster teachers – such as that if you worked hard at school you would have a better life (so that’s a lie??).

But we did wonder if the lies extended more covertly to Rush being an unreliable narrator, consciously or unconsciously, at some points. Was that why so many of the girls seemed to vanish into thin air? Was the appalling Croxford – arch manipulator, sexual explorer and general villain – quite as extreme as that? Was he really a son of the manse and a leader of choirboys? Well, some of us at least had known  a Croxford at school….

Did Rush’s voyeurism really pull out the plum of the best looking female teacher in the nude? Hmm… voyeurism at that age was not unusual, and his frightened departure had the ring of some element of truth in the tale…And Honeybunch was a plausible character, but the scene with her in the wood less so….

And above all did he comprehensively nail Kirsty in the summer fields in the splendidly evoked (“pornographic”? No! – “explicit”) scene at the end. Definitely not, because we were all too jealous…

As for Shakespeare, we liked the remarkable story of Rush’s epiphany when watching Olivier’s Richard III on a little black and white television. The tale of his consequent obsession with Shakespeare, and transformation from dunce to dux, was compelling. The sonnets had thus been drawn to the attention of one of our number, and, in our own mini-epiphany, he would now explore them.

We could have done with hearing more about Rush’s insights into Shakespeare, but the best on offer was to read his book “Will”, which might soon become a film. Similarly, it would have been interesting to hear more about St Monans’ life and about his parents, but for that we would need to consult the other volumes of his autobiography.

There was no doubt Rush could write in simple, effective prose, as in the moving story of death at sea, or as in this description of Kirsty:

there she was, just coming in…stuck between her sober parents like a gorgeous book between two Bibles. She filled the whitewashed whispering silence of the old stones with a loud shout of colour. The Old Kirk was a Spartan Presbyterian barn. And there she stood – in a poppy-red blouse with a large wide-brimmed hat and shoes to match. Her skirt and jacket were like morning milk…”

However, for some he often over-elaborated his prose. “Why use one word when fifteen will do?” asked one unruly pupil.

Another member confessed to not enjoying the book at all – he found it irritating and self-indulgent. It was perhaps the most erudite prose he had ever read. Often a literary allusion enhanced an image, but he felt Rush was more inclined to drown an image. In describing his early experiences the speech might be child-like, but was accompanied by prose with showy literary quotations, which he could not resist putting in. It seemed a quite inappropriate style to adopt when writing about a teenager. The author was self-conscious all the time. The book just did not ring true, occupying a territory half-way between autobiography and poetry.

On the other hand, another suggested, there was a much better balance between style and subject matter once Rush was writing abut his Shakespearean period.

Another aspect that some disliked was the sense of self-importance, or at least self-absorption, of someone who had done nothing very remarkable, but felt it appropriate to write a trilogy of autobiographies. This sense of self-importance was revealed unwittingly in the Epilogue. To get agreement to refer to her in the book, he phones up Judy (she of the erotic private organ recital) who remembers nothing about the treasured event. “Did she know that I’d become a writer? No, why should she care? Did she care? Scarcely. Would she like me to send her some of my books? Not really.….”

However, to his credit, Rush has the honesty to record this exchange and to admit: “For a time I felt crushed, humiliated, bewildered – and a right silly old fool”. He goes on to reflect, like Julian Barnes recently, on the distortions and selectiveness of memory, of how “we protect ourselves from the cold by harbouring illusions, a polite philosophical word for lies…

Where there was more consensus was that Rush brought to life a rich and engaging gallery of characters. For at least one member that was the main strength of the book. All their foibles and eccentricities – such as those of the remarkable Dr Ogg – were brought out delightfully. Most were approached with a warm Shakespearean empathy, but Rush’s empathy did not extend to the spinster teachers of his early years in Waid Academy, such as the dread Fanny Fergusson. He did not attempt to consider what experiences might have led her to be as she was – for him, she was still the complete villain as seen through the eyes of childhood. But perhaps we were all like that in relation to teachers we disliked.

So how was it that – post-epiphany – Rush now had the best teachers in the world? As recorded Alistair Mackie and Alistair Leslie seemed between them to have offered a higher standard of English Literature teaching than any of us had encountered at school. Was this a new breed of enthusiastic young male teachers replacing the dessicated spinsters, as Rush suggests, and as one of our number had also experienced in a rural school? Or was it that an enthusiastic student finds much more to commend in his teachers than a switched–off student? Or, suggested one from the profession, that teachers become more inspired and inspiring with the fifth and sixth years as the students become capable of offering some intellectual challenge?

Hmmm…..too difficult, at least for your jet-lagged correspondent, who had reached the end of his vino rosso rotgutto. Just a little pause to peer at the empty glass and the ever-attentive host was at my elbow opening a fine bottle of Glenesk Pinot Noir…

Don’t ask me about the rest of the discussion, I was dreaming……….. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” I was whispering to Kirsty Miller in a field of butttercups….