Oct 022015



I challenge anyone to read the adventures of the two indomitable Gauls, Asterix and Obelix, and not bust out into a belly laugh at least once. Much like Herge’s Tintin, there’s a peculiar flavour to these illustrated graphic novels (for this is indeed what they are – it would be incorrect to deem them mere “comics”) which American illustrators of humour have, for the most part, lost or abandoned – the ability to write and draw a story that is more than just a four strip daily funny, and make it long, absorbing, hilarious and riveting, stocked with a pantheon of characters that not only act funny, talk funny, but are named funny.

As with Tintin, there are many favourites of the series, held by many people – I’ve always preferred the first ten or so myself, and for the purposes of this essay, I don’t think I’ll touch on any in  particular, though Asterix in Britain is a perennial goodie and I always enjoyed Asterix and the Goths, Asterix in Switzerland, Asterix and the Great Crossing, Asterix the Gladiator and Asterix at the Olympic Games.

A short review of the situation is as follows.  It is 50BC.  Ceasar has conquered Gaul.  All?  No…one small village of (you got it) indomitable Gauls holds out against the roman legions by virtue of their druid’s ability to brew a potion that grants them superhuman strength.  So the Romans surround the village with four fortified camps named (and here we start with the naming) Torturum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.  There are various Romans throughout the series with awesome names like Chrismus Bonus, Marcus Ginantonicus, Gluteus Maximus, Arteriosclerosis, Gastroenteritus…I could go on but you get the picture.

The Gauls in this village all have names ending in “-ix” (a nod to Vercingetorix, a real Gaulish chieftain who surrendered to Caesar), and are a smorgasbord of rib ticklers: Vitalstatistix, the chief; Fulliautomatix the blacksmith (son of Semiautomatix); Geriatrix, the oldest guy in the village who somewhat improbably has a young and lusciously drawn, never-named wife; Unhygienix the fishmonger (son of Unhealthix) with a wife named Bacteria…and of course the titular hero Asterix, Getafix the druid and Dogmatix, the tree-loving little dog Asterix’s best friend Obelix loves.

These laughing, fighting Frenchmen go on to have some of the most unusual adventures in comic books, and in the ancient world – they go (variously) to Switzerland, Britain, America, Spain, Germany, Corsica, Paris, Rome, the Olympic Games, Egypt, even the Middle East – and in each case they meet a colourful cast of supporting characters who are uniquely drawn and have quirky characteristics of their own that reflect something of their national cliches.  Take, for example the Brits and their stiff upper lip and love for having a cuppa in the middle of a battle; the Egyptians and their predilection for obscure (and ginormous) architectural monuments.  I’ll grant you that stereotyping is rife throughout the series – but I see it more as a gentle nudge and wink from the authors than anything malicious or demeaning.

Part of what gives these adventures their charm is the ongoing gags throughout the various iterations: Obelix’s continual efforts to be allowed to drink some magic potion (since he fell into the cauldron as a baby he is permanently super-strong and Getafix won’t allow him to have any more); the inevitable thrashing, bashing or stringing-up which Cacofonix the bard gets any time he wants to sing; the rivalry between Unhygienix and Fulliautomatix; Obelix’s love of collecting legionary helmets (with or without Romans still attached) and eating boars; the pirates on the high seas whose father-son team (never named) have these hilarious conversations (the crippled son always speaks in pig latin), occasionally interspersed with gloomy commentary from the black lookout in the crow’s nest who keeps getting a “sinking feeling.”

Whether you accept and love the series depends on your sense of humour, I think, and whether you feel comics or colourful graphic novels of this kind are a suitable vehicle for slapstick and gags and puns and laughs. My recommendation would be to get them, and keep them and reread them every so often, and share generously. For my money, they are among the funniest, best examples of comic book humour ever drawn, and every time I read one, I feel myself shedding a few years, and becoming a kid again, and laughing just as hard as the first time.


Mar 202013

Wilfred Thesiger, who died in 2003, was the last of the old land explorers, whose likes included Burton, Speke, Younghusband, Lawrence, Connolly, Hedin, Amundsen, and stretched as far back as Marco Polo. Fluent in Arabic and French Thesiger was the first European to cross and extensively map the dreaded Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, and wrote acclaimed travelogues of now-vanished times in the middle east, and the Marsh Arabs of Iraq.  An unashamed Arabist, he loved the great empty silences of the desert, and the nomadic culture of the Bedu; he much preferred to travel and live the way they did, and he despised the modern era of travel where all hardship was erased, and man could not longer test himself against the land he sought to describe and explain.

“Arabian Sands” which Thesiger published in 1959, is one of the great works of travel literature.  It stands alongside “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and the works of Sir Richard Burton (not the actor), Marco Polo or Ibn Battuttah,  and the old victorian travellers of their day who shared the characteristic of describing not only the journey, but everything they saw on and experienced on it: peoples, customs, flora and fauna, geographical details…a sort of holistic experience that today is rarely found outside of fictional accounts (though I should single out Colin Thurbon’s work, or that of Thor Heyerdahl, and those others who go into the the Third World to attempt to achieve something singular and individual). If I were to name a modern equivalent – which has both greater and lesser value – it would be the Lonely Planet series, though this is not strictly comparable since these travelogues serve a different purpose.

“Arabian Sands” is, like “Seven Pillars”, part autobiography, part travelogue, part adventure story and part an account of various explorations Thesiger did in Abyssinia, and his years of being a civil servant in the Sudan Political Service.  Thesiger did not appreciate the civilized norms of the service, and ensured his own postings to more remote areas.  After the war, having been inspired by the exploits of Bertram Thomas and St. John Philby who had both crossed Arabia in the north, he resolved to try exploring and mapping the area of the Rub al  Khali himself, not least because no European had ever done it. The heart of this book describes his adventures in the Empty Quarter, the vast sands which covered the Southern part of Saudia Arabia, the place where even today the maps read, “Border Undefined.” The first crossing was 1946-47. Wilfred Thesiger persuaded Doctor Uvarov of the Locust Research Center in London to allow him to return to Oman and the Empty Quarter in order to map the area.

The book describes in detail Thesiger’s experiences with the Bedu, his opinions of them, their habits and lives and customs, and how he longed to be part of their culture.  And how, as he travelled with them, he was eventually accepted: there’s more than a whiff of “Avatar” or “Dances With Wolves” in this narration. But over and above the autobiographical details, what we really get is the description of a whole way of life that no longer exists.  The existence of the desert Bedu, even then under threat from rapid modernization based on oil, is evoked in prose that is both Kiplingesque and nostalgic.  Certainly Thesiger had a hankering for male camaraderie and, like many Orientalists, a rather odd attitude towards sexuality for the time; he did not find the wells of his soul filled with water from his own civilization, and found it elsewhere.  It is this blend of honesty, clarity of prose and evocation od worlds gone, which give Thesiger’s books their power.

I’ve read Sven Hedin’s accounts of his trips in Central Asia, as well as some of Younghusband’s work, and that of Burton, Livingstone and Aurel Stein: these explorers all shared a blend of craziness and chutzpah that got them past many hurdles in strange places; however for the most part, they went with expeditions and equipment, all the trappings of their culture.  Thesiger, like Lawrence, is more of an individualist, sometimes adhering to a code more closely seen as fascist or hero-worshipping, someone who wanted to sink himself into a different culture that did live and survive in the places he wanted to explore.  Now to some extent, Thesiger’s vision of man the explorer against the unknown is a classicist and romantic one, more redolent of Rousseau than Hobbes: but the kind of life of manly hardship he extols was even then a vanishing one, and is best appreciated by those who have an option to turn their backs temporarily on a more luxurious lifestyle. These days, in an interconnected, always-on microculture where gender roles are blurred and the “old ways” are seen in a misty, traditionalist haze of nostalgia, some readers might look back at a man like Thesiger and sigh enviously.

“Arabian Sands” reminds us that civilization has its price. The world can support over six billion people but the tag on that is a perhaps more elemental way of life being given up for creature comforts and delicate parsings of justice and law; of fantastical, even obscene aspects of culture, style, fashion, media and privacy. Many people will read Thesiger’s work and either long for a simpler time when matters stood more clear, or despise it for its simplicity and extolling of manly virtues from a different era: I am not one of either of these camps, but I have lived in many parts of the world and travelled to many more remote corners of it, and, aside from my appreciation for the beauty of Thesiger’s writing,  I also fully understand the siren power of its call.

Mar 202013



Chariots of the Gods (1968)

Before you wince, roll your eyes and question my hold on reality, hear me out. I’m aware of the stigma the subject matter has.

There were always books around me, lots of them: my mother was a librarian, and my father’s jampacked shelves were treasure troves to be unearthed at leisure (he promised me his entire collection “one day”, years ago, and I’m still waiting).  It was from these sources that I picked up “Steep Paths” by a now unknown Soviet writer called Vakhtang Ananyan; the Enid Blyton “Adventure” series, all of Willard Price’s short novels of Hal and Roger.  And some very obscure works by the likes of Andrew Tomas, Frederick W. Drake and Erich Von Daniken, which delved into unexplained and mysterious ancient artifacts and discoveries that in some (but not all) cases defy a reasonable explanation.

Stones at Sacsayhuaman – note the size and jointing


Erich Von Daniken could be argued to be the author who launched the seventies craze for ancient world weird stuff – he published in 1968, at a time when UFO research was still on people’s minds. In one book, he catalogued a list of frustratingly inexplicable – or fantastically coincidental – enigmas from the ancient world. Mysteries of construction like the ever-popular pyramids on two continents, the Easter Island statues and Stonehenge; the Nazca lines; the crystal skull; the Piri Reis Map; Antarctica, the Bible and Atlantis. I gobbled this stuff up, and have never lost my fascination for such matters, largely because, discredited as Von Daniken now is, however hokey the whole field has become, not all of what he brought to public attention has entirely been rationally or scientifically explained.  As Mulder once said in the X-Files: “The evidence against it is not entirely dissuasive.”  Amen to that.

Von Daniken tried to suggest that the ancient cultures of the world were connected with aliens; that all these strange monuments and artifacts represented contact with advanced extraterrestrial civilizations, and odd statuary and depictions of “Gods” were in fact expressions of how primitive people saw these divine personages.  Okay, fine, I’m the first to say that this is reaching a bit (a bit? I can hear you laugh). But the thing is, the artifacts that Von Daniken described and tried to explain are in themselves, real.  The Piri Reis map exists. The Nazca lines, the pyramids, the crystal skull, the cave painting and statuary – it’s all there.

Where I believe he fell down and brought disrepute into a genre much ignored before and since, is his rather dramatic interpretations.  Even at the young age when I first read the book, I thought he was not just swinging for the fences but the next ballpark altogether.  A round hole in a bison skull dated many thousands of years ago was, to him, not a natural occurrence (the thing ran into a sharp branch, maybe?) but evidence that there were guns in them thar days. The Bible’s accounts of Adam and Eve’s longevity suggested they were extraterrestrials (let’s not even discuss Ezekiel’s vision). And so on and on. You gotta kind of cringe when you read something so far out to left field – people can accept a decent premise, but one that’s that farfetched, with no real grounding?  Man, that’s pseudoscience with a vengeance. And it created problems for all who followed – Berlitz, Tomas, Hancock and others.

Graham Hancock, who wrote the much better researched and much less outlandish, but still critically reviled and controversial “Footprints of the Gods” (which I recommend just because he takes a more moderate approach to much of the same material) tried to revive interest in this subject in the 1990s, but I think he’s treading poisoned ground, no matter how fascinating (and it’s no coincidence that Mulder in the X-Files was never believed either, if you don’t mind me delving into pop culture for an analogy). People simply think it’s all crap.

As time went on, various other authors debunked a lot of Von Daniken’s theses, and he is, these days, sneered at, and mentioned in the same breath as “Little Green Men,” Atlantis, and various cults who believe in astral contact from some Lovecraftian universe.  His theories and the facts he brought to public attention are now fodder for mass entertainment: The “Hab Theory” by Allan W. Eckert tries to be serious but fails and is piss-poor writing to boot, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull took it to Hollywood; Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt, found (yup) a Crystal Skull in “Atlantis Found,” then came Stagate and its TV followers, and all those other novels and films which posit Atlantians, Lemurians, dudes from Mars, or Sirius or what have you. Sigh.  Take me to your leader indeed.

The Palenque tomb carving. Observe hands, nose and seated posture…what is it?


But the mysteries continue to tantalize and confound, holding us in a peculiar kind of thrall.  Science and historians have still not managed to come up with a convincing explanation of how the pyramids were built to such exacting specifications, let alone how old they really are (I leave it to you to decide whether the mathematics supposedly inherent in the dimensions is relevant or not), and to such gargantuan proportions; the Palenque tomb carving (above) does oddly resemble a man sitting in a device of some kind; what the hell was behind the Nazca lines, those huge drawings scraped into the Peruvian earth which cannot be seen except from the air? How did the meso-American and Egyptian civilizations move blocks of stone that weighed many tons (there’s a single block that is estimated to weigh 200 tons, an object our own largest cranes would have difficulty moving); and then build walls that had cunning joints with no mortar, following no rational pattern?

Von Daniken might have taken us for a grand ride, either through misguided ideas of his own or a desire to cash in on a fad he saw. I don’t really care, myself, long since having twigged to the weaknesses of the interpretations, and the theory.  But the objects themselves remain, their stories unanswered. Perhaps one day we will find the real truth behind such peculiarities in our history and culture.  For the moment they nag and tease and beg more questions than can be answered, fascinating us with a potential history we have thus far not bothered to address.

Mar 202013

The other day I was having a spirited discussion with a friend of mine in Toronto.  He cautiously started a sentence: “The fall of Constantinople in the 16th century…”

“1453.” I said

He gave me a doubtful look.  It’s not one of those facts you expect a half drunk guest to have at his fingertips, and I kinda feel for him there. It was sort of unexpected. “Are you sure?”

“1453, April to May, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the 2nd laid siege to the city, then took it by storm. It marked the end of the Byzantine empire and the flood of émigrés to western Europe was supposed to have helped fuel the Rennaisance.”  And I buffed my nails complacently, had some more of the excellent rum I was filching from his stocks, and smiled like a cherub.

It takes more than guts to tackle some of the tomes in my library:  it requires a genuine love for good writing as well as an interest in the world.  By carefully parsing that sentence and the conversation above, you may gather that I’m not talking about fiction, but histories. I’ve got quite a few that handily exceed a thousand pages, and can be comfortably used to serve as foundation stones of your new house: A History of the World by J. M. Roberts, for one, and Europe: A History, for another. It was Europe that informed the discussion above.

Much of the blame (or credit, depending how you see it) for the accumulation of such massive works that take weeks, if not months, to get through, belongs to mon pere, who early on in my life suggested I never let a history class pass me by. Years – decades! – later, I still follow this dictum.  And of all the works of the human past I have read, Europe: A History by Norman Davies, stands out as one of the most original, complete and readable presentations in the genre. Yes it’s long, yes it is daunting, but as with all well written works, treasures are there for the tireless reader who perseveres.

Three things make Europe stand apart from the herd.  The first is the fact that here, for one of the few times I’ve ever seen, an author takes the time to go beyond the rather timid interpretations of what and where Europe actually is. Not limiting himself to those places where barbarians invaded – Britain, France, Germany plus a few extras —  Davies remarks “For some reason it has been the fashion among some historians to minimize the impact of the Magyars. All this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.” And so he takes for his canvas northern, southern, eastern and western Europe…the continent in totality.  What in effect this means is that previously ignored portions of the continent (or those that are the subject of specialist books on their own that do not integrate them into the larger canvas) are given equal weight with the more commonly written about countries.

Secondly, there is the oddity and charm of the “inserts” as I call them.  These are boxes, bordered small essays, on one particulary tiny detail that is of interest in the period he is discussing, like time capsules. One describes why cheeses are similar across Europe; another discusses the origins of the word “jeans”, and yet another talks about the history of printing.  These inserts help break up the admittedly monolithic text and keeps the narrative flow quirky and interesting.  In fact, if you ignore the text and just read the three hundred plus inserts, that alone (in sheer informational and entertainment value) might justify a read of the book.

Lastly there’s the quality of the writing. Davies has a subtly ironic and quietly humourous style that is actually very readable (as the above remark on the Magyars should illustrate).  He tends to take the overview, discussing mass movements, ideas, trends, and then delve in here and there for something more detailed.  He avoids the bias of “western civilization” in the central portion (giving equal weight to other parts of Europe), covers the prehistory to the fall of the Soviet Union in twelve dense chapters, but for all that volume, it’s an entertaining read, however limited in its own way, and the prose helps the mass go down. I may be a bit strange this way, but I’ve read it twice so far, and it looks like a reread is in the cards this or next year.

No one book, no matter how weighty or long, can possibly cover the entirety of the history of such a large area, over such a long period of time, without getting bogged down in minutae or detail or length.  That Davies has done as much as he has, is astonishing in itself, but he himself remarks that it’s an overview, and not much primary research was required. The book is best used as a sort of central point to gather all threads of other more detailed works into a cohesive whole, maybe as a research tool for students.

Professor Davies is a leading English historian who made his reputation with the book  God’s Playground (1981) where he comprehensively reviewed Polish history (he studied in Poland and his doctoral dissertation was about the Polish-Soviet war).  He has written much about Poland, also wrote The Isles: A History, much in the same vein as Europe, with numerous capsules dotting his pages and consistently writes for the mass media.  His interpretation of the Holocaust has been criticized by some (this led to Stanford controversially refusing him a tenured position in 1986).

At 1400 pages and weighing in at 1.6kg (3.5lbs) Europe: A History is absolutely not for the faint of heart: but those who delve into its depths and brave its scope, will surely not be disappointed…always assuming they ever get to the end. I’ve dived into the deep ocean of Davies’s work twice now, and have always emerged months later, dripping, exhausted and tired, but also enervated, and always educated by some new thing I overlooked the last time. It may not be your thing, but what the hell, I highly recommend it anyway. You may only want to read the capsules, or you may brave the whole book, but whatever you read, you will absolutely come out with more than you went in with.

Mar 202013

The Coming Plague is a book about disease in the modern world.  Not diseases that originated in the 20th century (though certainly this figures in the writing), but about how diseases in our  world – specifically during the 1950s to the 1990s – spread, were identified, fought, and in some cases, ultimately conquered. It may sound like a dry subject, but Laurie Garrett’s prose, eye for the quirky detail and the topicality of the theme in a world made fearful by SARS, swine flu and H1N1, make it a riveting read.

The book is divided up into chapters that focus on a series of individual tiles that gradually make up a more compelling mosaic.  Rather than solely concentrating on dry statistics and stultifying boring histories, it takes the point of view of the famous CDC  disease cowboys of the era: men and women from the US Centers for Disease Control with scientific degrees and a quest for adventure who roamed the world trying to identify and quell outbreaks of diseases that heretofore were small and localized, but which in an increasingly integrated and mobile age threatened to bloom into something much more serious.  Beginning in 1962, it explores the emergence of hemorrhagic fevers in South America and Africa, and gives us fascinating stories (I’m not trying to make light of the suffering of its victims, merely to say how well the narrative is presented) on the Bolivian hemorrhagic fever, Marburg virus, yellow fever, lassa fever, Ebola…and AIDS.

Interspersed with the major themes of increasingly virulent viral diseases are occasional side trips relevant to the whole, such as that of Legionaire’s disease, the resurgence of sexually transmitted diseases after the optimism of seeing penicillin-based drugs nearly eradicate them; feminine hygiene and the dangers of super-absorbent tampons. And then there are chapters on topics as important as recognizing the cities as centre points for the spread of diseases (particularly their poorest sections where drug use and needle sharing is rampant); the increase in drug-resistant super-bugs; and by far the most poignant series of chapters, on AIDS.

Several things occurred to me as I read this book in 1996, and again to write this review: Garrett correctly sounded the horn on how important it was to control disease by open communication between government, the people and the medical establishment (something that horribly failed in the case of AIDS); how superbugs were becoming more, not less common; how the optimism of eradicating smallpox was cruelly smashed by simple evolution and inconsistent global public health policy; and how correctly she noted that modern mass transit (national and international) coupled with crowded megalopolises and poor urban centers, created optimum conditions for efficient disease spread. It’s not the first time this had been posited: it’s the first time I had read it presented so well, though.

If I had a fault to find with the book it is that it presents, on some subjects, too little: malaria, for instance, could have been more comprehensively dealt with (especially how the banning of DDT promoted its resurgence) – and having had it many times myself I think it criminal how few resources are devoted to its suppression even now; the focus is on disease control from an overall American perspective, but there are fewer mentions about other nations’ efforts in the same areas. In other words, I wanted more, which is perhaps a bit shameless considering this thing is 750 pages as it is.

But I freely admit that modern history is catnip for me.  I like knowing how things developed, how the world I live in was formed by the decisions (good or ill) of those who went before.  I think that in our modern world of popular appeal, instant news and always-on hypermedia, we often lose sight of what’s really important, ignore more global themes and lose ourselves in a vacuous haze of noise. The Coming Plague was a dash of cold water on complacency — and to my mind the news of the last fifteen years regarding global pandemic scares could almost form the next chapters of this fascinating, informative and highly readable work of an often-neglected subject, by an author who knows how to make the case.

Mar 202013

I don’t know of anyone from my generation who did not at least hear of Doom.  This one game – first released in 1993 – was the single most eagerly awaited offering of any software company to that time, was a landmark event that crashed the servers of the hosting BBS one minute after the midnight “opening”, and was reputedly the second most common reason quoted for the loss of productivity in offices worldwide (solitaire being the first).

As a working pro who corrupted every team of auditors for three years into playing deathmatch games after hours in our darkened offices, I can testify to that game’s addiction, adrenaline pumping action and (for its time) absolutely stunning graphics in a fully realized, spatially coherent 3d world.  It went beyond the trials of its zany predecessor Wolfenstein, made shareware common, game software respectable and launched a thousand coders into the gameworld. Even its terms have entered the common speech: Deathmatch, BFG, frag, First Person Shooter…Doom started a tidal wave in popular techno-culture that is with us still.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture seeks to go behind the scenes and trace the origins and development of the geniuses behind the game:  John Romero and John Carmack .  They were two guys barely out of their teens, but had already amassed experience coding games, and were the first (together) to create games that scrolled smoothly from side to side.  The success they had with one of these – Commander Keene – led to another game which I obsessively played, Wolfenstein (long range thanks to John, who provided the 1.44mb diskettes which loaded it onto my computers all those years ago), that also enjoyed considerable popularity.

While Romero was the ideas man, it was Carmack who was the programmer who created the realistic 3d modelling engine that gave the games their realism and quasi-3d feel.

And then of course, there came Doom.

The book is a relatively short read at 300 pages, and while it covers the history of the founders, it also is a sort of introduction to the programming subculture made famous years later by the Google corporate ethos. A bunch of guys simply got together with some great ideas, programmed like crazy for weeks on end, living like hermits on pop and pizza and in the process created not only fantastic games but charted a course which all first person shooters subsequently followed. MoD discusses the role of the two egocentric and driven founders of id Software, the way they came up with ideas, the programming of the 3d engine that underlay Doom, and intersperses the lot with witty anecdotes about matters as varied as the reason for naming WAD files as such, what a BFG is, how the shareware concept evolved and the origin of the word Deathmatch.

As with all supernovas, things had to come to an end. Creative differences led to a dissolution of the friendship and business association between the two men and the team they had built up: MoD discusses this frankly and in surprising detail. In fact, the book could be seen as a sort of primer not only of programmers’ secret lives, but on how tech startups start great, develop some kind of killer-app, and then either fly high or flame out. It doesn’t stop with Doom either, but continues into the new century and gives weight to subsequent events like the development of Quake, and where the founders are now (well…then: it was published in 2003).

The reason I post this review is because I not only loved the game and am a bona fide trivia- and history nut, but because it is a remarkably tense, tight and interesting read (especially if the subject matter appeals to you). The chapters on how they posted the first shareware version on the University of Wisconsin – Madison server in December 1993, opened the file up for download at midnight and crashed one minute later due to overload; the section on how amazing the reception was, both by the gaming community and average office Joes the world over;  and the popularity of Deathmatch…they are well written, well paced and a wonderfully fun read.

In comparison with the white-hot writing style portrayed in this short book, I found “The Ultimate History of Video Games” which should have been a great piece of work, simply plodding, pedestrian and  plain boring. No such problems afflict Masters of Doom, and if you have an affinity and sneaking affection for behind-the-scenes work of software (games!) publication, then this book describing the early years of the industry will not disappoint.

Mar 202013

Henry Kissinger is both respected and reviled as one of the most powerful American Secretaries of State ever (he also concurrently held the post of National Security Advisor) but there’s little argument that as an author and analyst the man is in a class by himself.  Nowhere, in my not-so-humble opinion, is this more clearly to be seen than in his doorstopper of a book about statecraft, Diplomacy.

Diplomacy is not for the timid, and should be avoided by those whose taste runs into fiction or who have the adult equivalent of ADD.  Admittedly, we at the club have ploughed our way through Ayn Rand, and the running joke is always that we’ll get to War & Peace in the next century or so as long as we get enough notice, but we’ll have to really brush up our socks and burn the midnight oil to get through this one if we ever relaxed the non-fiction rule. At 900+ densely-crowded pages and 3lbs, here’s a book for men with hair on their chests.

Starting with the end of WW2, Kissinger jumps backwards to the origins of the European system of international relations which developed after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and summarizes some three centuries of diplomacy between the western powers, giving generous time to France’s attempts to keep Germany disunited in the 17th and 18th centuries, the results of the post-Napoleonic-wars period, and the massive impact that Wilsonian idealism – so derided by a contemptuous Theodore Roosevelt who was a proponent of realpolitik if there ever was one – had on contemporary American foreign policy.  It is a vast and sweeping tapestry of history with characters as recognizable as Metternich, de Richelieu, Bismarck, Stalin, Hitler, Giap, Nasser and the 20th century American Presidents striding across the stage.

In its analysis and readability, it is, in most parts, masterful, I dare say brilliant.  Aside from George Kenan’s extraordinary essay “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (also known as the ‘Long Telegram’) written in 1947, I doubt I’ve ever read its equal in a non fiction work for sheer incisiveness and clarity of prose. I particularly enjoyed Kissinger’s dissection of Metternich and Richelieu’s maneuverings, and how Stalin survived the invasion of his country, as well has the psychological portraits of the many world leaders figured in the book. Kissinger’s recounting and analysis of events in which he himself played a part – the Vietnam War, the Arab-Israeli conflict among others – are somewhat less compelling, listing slightly more towards an apologia or explanation for actions taken by him, than a straightforwardly objective breakdown.

I have read Diplomacy cover to cover at least three times since I obtained it, and my scribbles, highlights and jottings mark many pages.  It has informed my world view, shed light on historical events and charges my desire to read more about real events and real people, every time I crack the cover. It is dense, scholarly, long and not a light read, so reader, be warned: this is not a trivial intellectual exercise for the scholastically disadvantaged…a solid grounding in history is almost a prerequisite, and Kissinger makes no concessions to you. But for those who manage to dive in and swim to the other side of this sea of scholarship, I can almost guarantee that you’ll walk away with more than you went in with and possessing a greater respect for diplomats and their efforts worldwide.


NB. This is irrelevant but I wanted to mention it: the book was given to me by Ken Hermann from Vancouver, a good friend and professional colleague from my first overseas job in Central Asia, back in 1995.  He lent it to me as he was leaving for his turnaround, and died the very same day, along with ten other Canadian expats and three Russian pilots, when the MI-8 helicopter they were in crashed in the Tien Shan mountains. I keep it and look at his name on the flyleaf every year, and remember him and all the others.

Mar 202013


What an enormous, sprawling, wide-ranging, dense, tragic, magisterial narrative has Robert Fisk spun out of his journalistic experiences. I have read Edward Said’s works on the Middle East, Huntigndon’s “Clash of Civilizations,” and passed through many histories of that troubled part of the world, but it is my considered opinion that this outcome of thirty years’ reporting there is in a class by itself. Personal, compelling, well-researched and passionately written, it is on a par with “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” for unbridled emotional and intellectual impact.

Fisk’s writing is a tour of the modern history of the middle east (although he digresses to other points from time to time). He writes about his interviews with Osama bin Laden, the Armenian genocide (it was the Congressional recognition of this in 2010 that made me go back to the book), the Algerian civil war, and 20th century histories of Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.  Through it all you get the sense of his outrage at how, as the British Empire waned and shrank and the American one rose, whole populations were manipulated, used, killed and moved as pawns across a strategic board, with fear and hysteria as coercive weapons. Nowhere is this more clear than in the account of the Iraqi invasion and how, by deliberately manipulated intelligence and populations whipped into war frenzies of hatred and revenge, the Western Powers commandeered the oil in Iraq, and labelled anyone who disagreed as being on the side of the “terrorists.”

This brief account of the book does little justice to the sweeping arc of Fisk’s accounts of the Middle East.  Yes it’s a weighty read, and yes, it’s long – a book covering this much history can hardly be anything else.  But his personalized writing style and in-place observations of the events that shaped the region for over a century are a valuable counterpoint to the drier historical tomes written by more erudite historians, and there’s no denying is research, or his passion for the innocent dead.   Indeed, it is these accounts that inflate the book (a fact bemoaned by many). Fisks acts as a speaker for the dead, presuming to ask why.  And if he writes stridently and with too many words, I can only recall the Emperor’s whine to Mozart about too many notes. And Mozart’s reply…”Which ones should I cut?”

I reiterate that if history is not your thing, this book won’t do much for you.  But as year passes year and we are no closer to a Middle East peace, and nations continue to go to war in that region, then perhaps a book like this, unashamedly partisan and mourning the waste, is in itself, perhaps, a good thing to take hold of and read through, if only just once.

Mar 202013

The recently deceased Pulitzer-prize winning author David Halberstam’s study of the 1950s remains, after three readings, one of the most enjoyable works of history I ever picked up by accident. I was in a small bookstore on Yonge Street in Toronto and needed two more books to round out the $25 I was spending. The other one has long since been relegated to a shelf somewhere, but I keep picking this one up every year or two to go through it again.

Halberstam’s central thesis is that while the sixties was a seminal decade in American life – Vietnam, the counterculture, birth control, rock and roll, peace, love and what have you, all rocked the nation – the germination for many of the events that defined that decade actually originated before that, in the immediate post-war years.  More, many smaller, less visible, but not less impactful occurrences also happened during the fifties which arguably had more far-reaching effects: Levittowns, the Cold War, discount stores, the beginning of the black migration from the south to the northern industrial centres, the origins of the Beat generation, the changes in cinema, decline in radio, advertising, research on contraception, fast food (the chapter on MacDonalds’s is brilliant)…I can go on and on.

Halberstam’s masterstroke is to make his chapters short and tightly focussed instead of droning on for hundreds of pages on grand themes that would inevitably try the patience of a scholar.  Starting with the late 1940s, he sketches the main events from a political perspective.  Truman, MacArthur, the origins of the Cold War, atomic reasearch, the return of GIs from service, the nascent middle class, are all touched on briefly.  After that he ranges more widely, and not always chronologically, because his chapters tend to focus on one thing at a time.  In a book this large – okay, okay, it’s 800 pages long — I’m amazed that it contains as much as it does in 46 succint chapters.  And if the book has a weakness, it’s that the chapters are not labelled, only numbered, so one is not sure what one is getting into until halfway through a section (this is why my edition has my chapter titles inked in – “Rosa Parks and the advent of Civil Rights”, or “the 1952 Presidentials” and “The emerging impact of TV”…and we won’t even discuss the highlighting that is on almost every page).

David Halberstam was a journalist and author who cut his teeth reporting on the Viet Nam war, and wrote a seminal work on US hubris leading to that debacle and the subsequent influence of those policies and decisions called “The Best and the Brightest,”  which I also recommend highly. He first came to my attention when I read his book “War in a Time of Peace” which discussed the low intensity conflicts that raged following the end of the cold war and how the US dealt with them…in particular, Haiti, the Balkans and Somalia. He was a Pulitzer prize winner and loved baseball and sports, about which he also wrote several highly regarded books.

This glowingly positive review is probably not going to change anyone’s mind.  If you’re not into history or current affairs, well, then I doubt I can convince you to pick up a tome this large in between all your other concerns.  I myself usually take about a month to go through it.  But if you are at all interested in the history of the 20th century and the forces that shaped American society and culture – and by diffusion, that of much of the western world – then this book is well written, informative and one of the best of its kind.

Mar 202013

The Flood Tablet

Then came the flood, sent by gods’ intent…
And Ea [gave] this advice to me:
“Arise and hear my words:
Abandon your home and build a boat
Choose to live and choose to love…
Be moderate as you flee for survival
In a boat that has no place for riches
Take the seed of all you need aboard…”

Tablet XI, Column i, The Epic of Gilgamesh

Aside from historical and biblical scholars, not many people know about The Epic of Gilgamesh, though my research suggests that the character seems to be somewhat of a subterrannean cultural icon and is referenced quite often in the arts; those that do know the epic, came to it not as a classic in its own right but because they heard or read that it provided one of the first independent written records of The Flood (a fact not as startling as it may seem, since many creation myths from around the world have a destruction of man by gods in a titanic cataclysm as one the central theses).

But like Moll Flandersthe RamayanaHuck Finn or The Tale of Genji, it shares a unique genealogy: it is among the first of its kind, if not the first.  It may be the oldest tale ever written, and the earliest work of literature known to man.

The Epic is a Mesopotamian myth; it is a series of short episodic poems from the proto-kingdom of Sumer, which flourished around four thousand years ago (divorce and property rights were developed here, for the trivia nuts reading this). It describes the adventures of the King of Uruk, and his best friend Enkidu (in this it parallels the Kyrgyz hero-myth of Manas and his best friend Almanbet, though the legends are not strictly comparable), and is inscribed on twelve stone tablets found at the city of Nineveh, once part of Babylon, in 1849.  Various interpretations suggest that the oldest part of the tale is from Sumer itself, but later Akkaddian additions created the famous 12 cuneiform tablets which form the basis of most modern translations.

In the first part of the Epic, Gilgamesh is a king, two thirds god, one third man, who oppresses the citizens of Uruk by – among other things – indulging himself in the droit de siegneur (the “prima nocte” made famous by Braveheart).  They cry out to the gods, whose create a primitive man of the same power as Gilgamesh; he is Enkidu, covered in hair and living in the wild, until found; seduction by a temple prostitute is the first step in his civilization (an interesting twist on Rousseau’s thesis that it is civilization that corrupts the Eden-like state of primitive man).  He goes to Uruk to confront Gilgamesh and after a titanic battle, they become friends

The next tablets tell the various adventures the two friends have: the slaying of the demi-god Humbaba; the encounter with the goddess Ishtar after returning to Uruk, and Gilgamesh’s refusal of her advances (Ishtar is part of the the prototypical triumvirate of elder gods, corresponding to the Sumerian Innana, Egyptian Isis, semitic Astarte…and the (downgraded) greek and roman goddess of love); her petulant plea to her father Anu to avenge her humilation by sending the Bull of Heaven to wreak destruction on Uruk.  The heroes slay the bull, but the gods decide one must die for this affront to heaven, and after a short illness interspersed with many vividly recounted dreams, Enkidu dies.  Mad with grief, Gilgamesh seeks to find a legendary man called Utnapishtim who may be able to to provide him with the secret of immortality and of regenerating life…since he has been alive since the Great Flood.

And here we come to it.  Try and imagine the impact such a statement on a four thousand year old tablet must have made on a mostly secular but still religious culture which had not yet been exposed to Darwin. The description Utnapishtim gives Gilgamesh corresponds very closely with the Flood Myth of the bible (and with many other myths in world culture, but I won’t go into that here), most particularly how one family was given advance warning to build a boat to ride out the flood, and then, after the waters began receding, released a bird to see whether it returned.

In the event, Utnapishtim instructed Gilgamesh how to find the sacred flower that provides immortality, but after Gilamesh discovers and picks it, the bloom is stolen while he bathes by….what else?  A serpent. (I just love this stuff…even a modern novelist can hardly better this one)

Gilgamesh is one of those stories at the root of our memories and culture, so basic that we can’t see its murky outlines underneath our common notions of storytelling.  Much like Robert Johnson’s primitive licks which whisper from under the bedrock of current rock music, Gilgamesh is one of the prototypical tales without which none of the others can be properly understood.  He is the first Nietzschean superman, the most basic wandering hero like Rama, Hercules, Manas or Conan.  He calls to our unconscious mental picture of a Jungian first man with correspondences in Aboriginal, Lakota, semitic, Hindu, Greek, Inca, Polynesian and shinto mythology. He is the first recorded attempt in world letters to nail down the concept in a permanent form. The epic dealt with sex, religion and flawed beings in a realistic way not found again for literally millenia, questioned dogma and the gods themselves, and told a coherent story that actually had a point (though scholars feel it is still incomplete and not all tablets have been recovered)

And for a legend this old and this dusty, it’s actually still referenced a lot in modern art and historical forms.  Consider: Atlantis theorists refer to the Epic constantly as a secondary source for the Flood Myth they claim underlay the sinking of that fabled isle; Phillip Roth wrote a novel abut a baseball player Gil Gamesh, whose story arc followed the epic; it has been translated into Klingon for Star Trek fans (along with Hamlet) and been the focus of at least one episode in The Next Generation; at least three operas of that name have been written in the latter half of the 20th century; perhaps due to its oral backgrund, a variation of the legend has often been performed in theatre; and Japanese anime references it in Sword of Uruk and in Gurren Lagan (there’s this mecha called Enkidu…); even Hercules: The Legendary journeys, an American TV series, had Gilgamesh make an appearance. Think this is all?  In the Final Fantasy video games, there is usually a boss called Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu; in Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance, there’s a Viraxo ship named Enkidu; in Civilization IV Beyond the Sword expansion pack, the leader of the Sumerian civ is called Gilgamesh.

Joseph Campbell’s powerful work The Hero With A Thousand Faces (which helped George Lucas fashion Star Wars, by the way) probably comes closest to allowing us to understand the peculiar longevity of a character in myth mostly forgotten and rarely read. The Hero on a Quest holds a fascination for us all because it is embdedded in our subconscious, part of our race memories of a wandering past.  We seek the unattainable both within and without our physical selves, seek a state of grace and strength over and beyond the mundane lives we live. Gilgamesh, strong, kingly, flawed, who lost his best friend and gained knowledge if not enlightment, speaks to that part of us that rises above the petty considerations of our world and searches for a more sublime state of mind.

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