Kirk's Book Reviews
Kirk's Book Reviews
Here's where I like to review contemporary and classic books in the fields of Literary Fiction, Economics, Politics and History. I also use this forum to post regular articles and announce updates on current projects, so keep checking it on a regular basis!
Like other writers, I'm passionate about discussing books that have enthralled me or changed my perspective on something.
Is there anything better than a good read?
|Posted on August 25, 2015 at 5:45 PM||comments (0)|
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Historical Fiction is one of the biggest selling genres at the moment, and it’s inexplicable that I’ve not read anything from this field. After all, my academic background is in the study of History and I’m also an author of Literary Fiction.
But why has this ideal synergy never grabbed my attention until now? It’s hard to say: perhaps because a lot of my historical interests are in the modern industrial era when contemporaries wrote about the world around them. For instance, I don’t need somebody to write about Kaiserreich Germany when I’ve got Thomas Mann out there; nor do I need to look for the France of Napoleon III when Emil Zola has already documented it so well. For my other historical interest – the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the emergence of the Germanic barbarian tribes – I cannot imagine somebody brave enough to write a tale of love and intrigue set during the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th century AD.
So my arrival at this booming genre is fortuitous and purely because of my thirst to read anything translated from the Japanese language. Fortunately, Shusaku Endo is also one of the best-rated novelists of the twentieth-century, and Silence is his masterpiece.
Written in 1966 and translated for the first time in 1969, Silence has gone through over 60 editions and has established Shusaku Endo’s reputation as a unique voice in Japanese Literature. He also has the distinction of being a Roman Catholic in a country where only one percent of the population identify with the Christian religion; this is key to understanding why this novel is so good.
The setting is 1640, two years after the Shimabara rebellion in south-western Japan, which saw the Tokugawa Shogunate put down a social uprising by (mainly) Catholic insurrectionists, leading to the beheadings of over 30,000 Christians. Now driven underground by a merciless state policy to outlaw and punish the remaining adherents of the faith, Endo elaborates on the story of Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a Portuguese priest who goes to Japan to find out if his former mentor has apostatised under torture. To put things in perspective: the number of Christians has fallen from 300,000 to less than 2,000, reversing the proselytising success of the Jesuit missionaries of the sixteenth-century. Rodrigues knows he will be tortured if caught by the Shogunate landlords, but he wants to see with his own eyes if the stories coming out of Japan are true.
As one of the most literate civilisations of the time, there’s no shortage of historical sources for this period in Japanese history, but nothing can tell us of the privations, agonising dilemmas and horrendous moral choices these people had to endure. The number of victims and legendary tales of perfidious cruelty and martyrdom will live on forever, yet the old adage that ‘History is written by the winners,’ is correct in this instance. So what better vehicle than the novel to bring out the hopes and fears of the people caught up in this era of stupendous hardship?
The fictitious Father Rodrigues is an idealist Jesuit who arrives in Japan with the intention of administering the sacraments to an isolated Christian underground shorn of its priests and cut off from its missionaries. He knows he will have to hide in the wilderness and rely on the loyalty and hospitality of Christian peasants, but the bleak landscape and extreme poverty of rural Nagasaki are as hostile as the Samurai that stalk the countryside looking for ‘hidden’ Christians. Every sentence resonates with a latent fear of isolation and loneliness in the villages where ‘wild scraggly cats wandered all over the place’ and ‘the wind blew an awful stench which almost made me vomit.’ The peasants that hide him and bring their children to be baptised are a curious race of over-worked, under-nourished serfs that have learned to feign stupidity in the presence of their Samurai masters. These are the people Jesus sacrificed his life for, yet Rodrigues cannot shake the feeling that God’s silence in these eerie bushes, where cicadas sing hoarsely and the sea waves echo in the dark like muffled drums, is a refusal to intervene in a barren land. As he notes in a rare moment of despair: ‘If God does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion?’
As a religion of faith and ethics, Christianity has given rise to remarkable acts of courage and privation from those willing to bear the costs of persecution. At times it has also produced extreme manifestations of belief in God’s protection, as evidenced by the fifth-century Donatists of North Africa, the uncompromising acolytes that would go as far as throwing themselves off mountains to prove their zealous commitment to the cause.
Rodrigues imagines the brave peasants of Japan will undertake martyrdom with the same zeal, but soon realises there is nothing glorious about the way those associated with him are murdered by the authorities. Again the silence returns, the silence of grief and inaction, the silence of a God who does nothing as these noble people go to their deaths for refusing to renounce their faith. It dawns on him he arrived here to die for these peasants, yet he can do nothing but watch as his stubbornness brings about the pointless deaths of those he came to save. One decision from him to trample on an image of Jesus and announce his apostasy will save every peasant suspended in the torture pit. Should he reject all he believes in to end their suffering?
This moral dilemma allows Endo to tackle one of the most contested themes of Christian ethics. The teachings on forgiveness and the ‘love thy neighbour’ approach to those that torment you are all well and good when you have the strength to turn the other cheek. But do you offer no resistance when fellow Christians are being persecuted? Does the act of watching others suffer become a transgression and forgiveness a weak excuse for inaction?
Kichijiro, the alcoholic apostate, whose family perished at the blade of the Samurai sword, is perhaps the most intriguing of Endo’s creations. Restored to the brethren by risking his life to guide Rodrigues to the secret Christians, he later betrays him to the Magistrate for 300 pieces of silver. Yet despite everything he retains a reverence for the Priest and quickly returns to the faith after his periodic renunciations to save his skin. Rodrigues begins to see this man should not be punished for his apostasy. Faith cannot be measured by a person’s ability to endure torture when God himself created the weak constitutions and feeble minds of these people. What kind of God allows this level of suffering to test the faith of his subjects?
Whether Father Rodrigues loses his faith is open to interpretation. We know he has ethical motives for trampling on the image of Jesus, if only to save the peasants dying on his behalf. All his life he has been guided by the face of Jesus Christ and imagined he would endure suffering with the same asceticism as the Son of God. But the Shogunate authorities will not grant him a glorious death; his conscience is what the tormenters prize above everything else. Can he be accused of apostasy when he saved the lives of countless peasants?
Like most Japanese Literature, Endo’s writing is vivid in it descriptive beauty and economical in its deliverance. You won’t find endless sentences cluttered with adverbs or dominated by excess pronouns. The prose is lucid and a pleasure to read; the tempo reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. You don’t need to be a Christian or have any affinity with the religion to enjoy this novel. This is a meditation on man’s understanding of the world and the search for salvation that offers us so much comfort in an incomprehensible environment.
|Posted on August 19, 2015 at 5:15 PM||comments (98)|
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Coin Locker Babies has a reputation as one of the most disturbing novels of the twentieth century. Dark and at times sinister, Ryu Murakami plunges head on into a world of extreme violence, perversion and decadence where others may fear to tread. Imagine Oliver Twist re-written by Lars Von Trier and set in a dystopian future inhabited by hedonists, junkies, pushers and manic depressives. The law of the jungle is the norm, but a thin veneer of high civilisation keeps the status quo from imploding.
Make no mistake, this is an exceptional book, bursting with imagination, originality and abundant energy. And like his namesake, Haruki Murakami, Ryu also has a knack for depicting the classic loner protagonists that grab your sympathy and intrigue you in an instant.
Spanning the lifetime of two orphans, Kiku and Hashi, from their childhood through to their early 20s, Coin Locker Babies is dark comedy, satire and psychological thriller all rolled into one. Yet a world of abandoned coal mines, polluted dwellings, pimp dens and young offenders’ institutes may seem banal compared to the characters on offer. Where else will you find a homicidal Filipino gun enthusiast, a supermodel with a pet crocodile, and a record company executive who can only sleep with women once satiated with bacon fat? The roller-blading hooligans, degenerates and lonely sociopaths lurking in the background are as enchanting as their life stories.
Kiku is the most likeable, but troubled character. Introverted, seemingly asexual and given to thinking with his fists rather than his brains, we learn ‘he had played basketball in gym class, but once the ball was passed to him, he could never bring himself to pass it on and ended up shooting on every play.’ The national Pole-vaulting championships and a vague realisation he has an obligation to look out for Hashi, his fellow orphan, keep him grounded in reality until he discovers his life’s mission to locate and unleash DATURA, a toxic substance that has the power to turn everyone into depraved murderers. His motives are misanthropic, although the logic that by killing everyone he’s sure to at least get his unknown mother in the process is as amusing as thinking one can cure the world of inequality by outlawing private property. (Wait a minute: that was once an intellectual ideal, wasn’t it?)
Hashi is even more of an enigma. A frail child suffering from OCD and mild agoraphobia, he finds sanity and homosexual happiness in Toxitown, the one part of Tokyo abandoned by the police and city government following an environmental disaster. Kiku is the most important person in his life, but is often the source of his psychopathic inferiority complex. Rock stardom and marriage only add to his anxieties and exacerbate his disturbed mind. Is he also destined to find the meaning of life in murder?
It’s not often a writer can keep you interested with no obvious plot structure and a bewildering array of bizarre events descending further and further into depravity. For the nearest equivalent see Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, another epic novel that’s successful in second-guessing the reader with surreal surprises. But to explain Coin Locker Babies is like attempting to summarise a Fellini film. In fact, Satyricon is also a good reference point for what you can expect in this book, which is, of course, the unexpected.
The tale of the peasant moving to the big city has formed the bedrock of most stories since time immemorial, and Ryu Murakami is just as fascinated by the pace and lubricity of urban life. Here the libertines can pursue their desires without scruple or excoriation while the loners use the chaos and pollution around them to justify their hatred for society. As one of the aesthetic influences on the modern cyberpunk subculture, Coin Locker Babies is arguably at its most successful when seen from the perspective of the great metropolis. You are reminded that the contradictions and hypocrisies of the city are as thrilling as they are frustrating – you can’t live without the social tensions, graffiti and traffic that go with the privileges of anonymity and 24-hour entertainment. No wonder there are now plans for a film adaptation starring Val Kilmer and Asia Argento.
You may feel dumb-founded, piqued and flabbergasted by what you read here, but you will never be bored and will always be astonished. Yes, there are moments of blood-curdling violence and sadistic sexual encounters that make you cringe. There’s no shame in giving up if Ryu Murakami gets inside your skin and challenges your morality. But for genuine originality and genre-defying brilliance look no further than Coin Locker Babies.
|Posted on August 12, 2015 at 7:05 PM||comments (307)|
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Hitomi Kanehara is a major name in Japanese Literature, and has the good looks, mesmerising ability and peer recognition to go with it. And what about her unorthodox journey to the top? The daughter of a Literature Professor, she dropped out of school at age eleven and re-merged a decade later as the winner of the prestigious Akutagawa Award for her debut novel, Snakes and Earrings. With over a million sales in Japan alone, her bank balance is now as impressive as her reputation, but she hasn’t written anything new since 2007 and looks destined to be another J.D. Salinger. Is the hype justified?
Auto Fiction is Kanehara’s second novel and is the only other work translated into English besides her ground-breaking debut. Too long for a novella and too short for an epic piece of Literature, it makes for a captivating read and should be commended for its intense, rhythmic prose and vertiginous narrative. Another 10,000 words would have resulted in overkill and exhaustion, yet the 216 pages here will leave you short of breath and grateful you’ve escaped almost unscathed from the narrator’s torment. Think of Hugh Selby Junior, but with better grammar and punctuation.
The story follows Rin, an insecure young woman who suffers a panic attack on a return flight from Tahiti. Sitting next to her beloved husband, she imagines the flight attendant is flirting with him and goes to great lengths to convince herself that a full-blown fornication is happening when he slips away to the toilet. Her fears are unreasonable, but her conviction unshaken. What factors are responsible for this neurosis?
These are standard themes in contemporary Literary Fiction, but the originality lies in the structure of the book. In a departure from established chronologies, Kanehara traces Rin’s life in a reverse time line from aged 22 to her troubled year as a fifteen-year-old pregnant mother. Before you scream cliché, let me also add that the narrator is a successful novelist who’s been asked to write ‘Auto Fiction’ as her next project (e.g. a work of fiction written in the style of an autobiography). Ten years ago this would have been labelled ‘Post-Modern’ because of the blurred line between an objective reality and its subjective interpretation. In my opinion this was always a lazy attempt to categorise anything left-field and hard to define; don’t let classifications get in the way of a good story in this case.
As a reader, you’ll get used to thinking one page ahead as each secret torment reveals the elaborate complexity of Rin’s disturbed mind. Where is her next meal coming from? Who will she have to fuck to survive on the fringes of the red light district? Will her loser boyfriend blow their rent on the Pachinko machines? Will she be saved from gang rape? What will she do to ensnare her next lover in a state of dependency? Of course this would be tedious and predictable without the contrary experiences of euphoria and licentiousness to iron out the moments of despair and self-hatred. Underneath it all is a nihilistic pleasure in self-destruction – an unwillingness to adapt to life’s more banal rhythms in search of constant gratification. Danger and excitement abound, but violence is never far away. A reckless tequila slammer contest in a night-club culminates in Rin grabbing the DJ’s microphone to declare “I am God,” to the masses of drug-fuelled party-goers on the dance floor beneath; another scene sees her survive the machinations of a gang-rape by befriending the one nerd in the room; Chapter Three ends with her being chased through the seedy Shinjuku streets by a knife-wielding foreigner. Everything happens so fast, yet leaves you too shocked to fall back on moral judgement.
In novels like this, all writers need to create likeable protagonists and avoid narrators that are given to self-pity. Kanehara is too intelligent to fall into this trap. A macabre sense-of-humour underpins Rin’s restlessness, yet a precocious maturity stops her from seeking solace in fortitude. Sometimes she manipulates others to improve her own situation; at least she’s not troubled by hypocrisy or blind to her selfishness. Other writers, like the contemporary English novelist, Jenn Ashworth, have created better characters that are less prone to bitter introspection and more subtle, yet Rin fascinates just as much because she remains beyond the ordinary. And that’s a good thing: she’s like a specimen in a jar, far away enough to pique our sympathy and not close enough to confirm our fears that even the girl next door can be the secret sociopath. We can keep her at a distance and watch her suffering while the blood, spunk and tears fall on other reprobates and degenerates.
Auto Fiction isn’t quite the perfect novel. Kanehara’s has tendencies to fill the odd page with spontaneous self-recriminations that ought to have been edited from the first draft. Preserving the original vituperative rage of Rin’s darkest moments has its merits, but not when you have four consecutive pages of repetitive psychobabble. But what can you say about a book that keeps you gripped to the end and, in my case, inspired me to read it again in reverse order?
The only disappointment is how this may be the last Kanehara novel translated into English. With no new works in the last eight years, she keeps a low profile and her media interviews since 2004 are as rare as Greek tax compliance. But at least her works will live on until the Japanese Literary establishment turn against the craze for teenage nihilism and we have to rediscover her again in a different era under different circumstances.
|Posted on August 11, 2015 at 1:40 PM||comments (0)|
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Ferdinand Mount is an Eton-educated, Oxbridge graduate who wrote the Tory 1983 election manifesto. He also holds a semi-dormant baronetcy, is related to David Cameron’s mother, and resides amongst the middle reaches of the aristocracy. What does he know about the class divide in Britain? Can he even speak for the lower classes?
After 20 pages, I must confess my prejudices were getting in the way of this book. An opening chapter devoted to the evolution, exclusion and ownership of language by the upper classes, tracing obscure arguments between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford in the pages of a 1956 anthology confirmed my worst fears. Here was another trivial study in the semantics of class expression interspersed with the author’s self-important smatterings of Latin, Ancient Greek and French at the end of every other sentence. Yet again we had another journalist with a major publishing deal clogging up the book shelves of Tesco’s Current Affairs section without anything important to say. How wrong I was.
Don’t let Mount’s background scar your judgement; this is a fantastic book, draped in mourning for the disinheritance of the Victorian working class and crafted in the type of elegant prose rarely seen in modern political discourse. Underpinning Mount’s theory is the idea that the industrial working classes of the nineteenth century were not only self-sufficient and sturdy, but vigorous in their demand for improvement through education and altruistic in their desire to help one another through collective action. That is until the state came along and gradually monopolised education, health services and housing, and crowded out the voluntary efforts of the great unwashed. This has been a one-way process since 1870 where the ruling classes have engaged in managing the masses with paternal condescension while disparaging their civil institutions and fearing their potential for disruption.
At the heart of this disinheritance has been a Marxist legacy of thought that has succeeded in scaring the upper classes, but has had a more banal effect on the working classes. As Mount shows, the Marxist vision of the future as a war between the owners of production and the destitute labouring masses was a gross simplification of society that never found expression in Britain. Furthermore, Engels’ portrayal of a depraved, God-forsaken proletariat robbed of all dignity and humanity by the drudgery of factory life is disingenuous in the extreme. Those uprooted from village traditions and spewed into the smoke-infested incubators of mass production in Lancashire and the Black Country were not the illiterate, violent, drunkards depicted in Marx’s bleak dystopia.
As a counter-argument, Mount undertakes a sweeping study drawing on government statistics, memoirs, and contemporary Victorian sources. His aim is to show how the working classes were constantly under attack from the ruling elite for their attempts to carve out a distinctive civilisation of their own. In other words the only people who really believed in the determinism of class consciousness were those who feared dispossession. On the contrary, the agents who Marx singled out as future victors in a scientific process of evolution were more than content to look after their own communities and seek accommodation and compromise under the stewardship of a liberal democratic franchise.
Let’s take the first distortion imposed on the new industrial civilisation by the horrified observers of the time – the abandonment of religion in the new cities. Far from disappearing, Protestant Christianity experienced a new lease of life in major industrial towns where the Church of England feared to tread. Non-conformist (e.g. Methodists and Baptists) chapels sprung up everywhere as workers built their own places of worship in the new urban conurbations. What’s breath-taking is how much this was resented by the Anglican establishment and the literary elite of the time, many of whom, like the famous education reformer, Matthew Arnold, detested the kitchen-sink organisation and crude catechisms of the lay preachers. Yet two million children were enrolled in Sunday School by the 1850s, most of them funded by working class Christians. Likewise, Horace Mann’s survey of 1851 records how nearly half of the 52 percent of church-goers did not practise Eucharist in an Anglican Church, but in the non-conformist chapels. It seems an apathetic, irreligious class of industrial heathens still had time to create their own churches, despite the popular (mis)representation of the time.
Next we have education. The progressive view of history taught in our schools and universities knows only one narrative here. The benevolent state rescued millions of children from twelve-hour shifts in the factory and gave them hope of mobility through the introduction of compulsory education. Parents of these miserable and malnourished ragamuffins couldn’t be trusted to educate their children; but for the first time these heathen masses could at least be taught how to read and right. Snobbish ignorance and simplification is yet again at fault here. Mount cites an 1841 Royal Commission which shows 79 percent of all miners in Northumberland and Durham were literate; indeed 92 percent of the adult population in Hull could read and write thirty years before the Education Act of 1870. If the state wasn’t providing these services, who was? Well, of course the working classes through their church subscriptions, savings and collective ventures. Parents and philanthropists were the main contributors, the former finding ways to put aside funds for the advancement of their children – yet again at odds with the stereotypical brutish workers who sought an outlet in their alienation through drinking, wife-beating and child neglect. In fact, government statistics from the mid-nineteenth century show ‘the number of private day scholars had increased from 674,883 in 1818 to 2,535,462 in 1858, from one in seventeen of the population to one in 7.7.’
One-by-one Mount tackles the crude stereotypes and succeeds in demonstrating how the growth of a self-sufficient working class of the nineteenth century was one of the most astonishing achievements in human history. As the economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek noted in his classic 1944 study, The Road to Serfdom, nobody doubted the industrialisation of the nineteenth-century was the beginning of a crude civilisation of which there was no precedent to fall back on. Which makes it all the easier to understand how the spectacular transition from village to town life for millions of people brought so much foreboding and anxiety from the ruling classes. What about the ubiquity of bastard children conceived in the factories by workers no longer under the watchful eye of the priest or village squire? Yet again this is another fallacy. Academic historians are cited to demonstrate how this was always a myth. ‘Up to 1930, rural districts had far higher bastardy rates than the cities.’
Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Mind The Gap focuses on the attitude of the literary elite towards the masses, especially the lower middle classes. Here Mount surveys the modernist writers of the early twentieth century alongside their Victorian predecessors. In the case of Virginia Woolf, a self-declared socialist, we find only a brazen contempt for the vulgar masses, with their soulless suburbs, philistine tastes and moronic deference to the Monarchy. These views are repeated in the works of D.H. Lawrence, George Gissing and a host of other great names from this period. Always and everywhere the fear of the masses permeate their thoughts. Supporters of working class autonomy and voluntary endeavour they were not.
Of course, our author, Baronet William Robert Ferdinand Mount, is aware of the dangers of romanticising the admirable stoicism, moral certainty and fortitude of the working classes. This is not an attempt to re-write the industrial revolution as a propaganda exercise in self-reliance, even though the current malaise of welfare dependency in modern Britain is clearly at odds with the twilight of working class pride in bygone times. Workhouses, child prostitution, cholera, vagrancy, abysmal mortality rates, malnutrition and physical degeneration cannot be omitted from the history of early industrialisation; Mount is not denying that life was a struggle for existence for many people. But he is right to lament how the state has appropriated all social responsibilities for providing succour, relief and education in place of the civil institutions that were perfectly willing to carry out these functions without interference.
So what are his recommendations for the future? Allowing parents to set up their own community schools is now a mainstream idea and has a clear link to the working class heritage of self-provision; reversing the seventeenth-century enclosures to give non-farming land back to the people might be too radical; giving workers more shares in their companies raises its head every ten years when progressive Labour thinkers want to put a human face on the image of capitalism. But Mount is not a Fabian socialist; his ideas are Conservative with liberal tendencies. He defends the marriage tax break and rues how the state rewards single-mother households in its allocation of council houses. Not only does this trap people, it also discourages them from moving to another estate or town for fear of falling down the housing list. We’ve heard all this before, yet this is not the standard Daily Mail complaint. Mount’s argument is more philosophical:
‘If ever freedom for the working class existed in the great pulsating, protesting collective… it certainly does not any more. People at the bottom have long since lost confidence in mass action as the guarantor of authentic freedom and justice. If happiness is to be found, it is to be found in the pleasures of private life, above all in love.’
This is worth serious attention. The last platoon of pride and personal achievement for the working class is the family. Unfortunately, Mount acknowledges his shortcomings here. No sane person would reverse the divorce laws of the 1960s; but why has marriage breakdown become so widespread? Is it a cosmopolitan elite that has a disproportionate influence on society – think of Ed Miliband’s shock when he discovered his core voters would not tolerate a Prime Minister-elect who trivialised one of their core institutions? But surely working class attitudes cannot always be manipulated from above by a sneering counter-culture elite of snobbish internationalists. This would deny the working classes the very ‘agency’ Mount venerates with so much admiration. Other reasons must be at work here – the decline of religious symbolism and meaning; the emergence of alternative lifestyles; the vigorous promotion of individual pleasure as a source of happiness; the increasing cost and extravagance of the modern wedding ceremony; the declining birth rate amongst the educated classes; the equality of inheritance law between married and non-married partners; the disappearance of the sex before marriage and child-born-out-of-wedlock taboos. All these might hold the answer, but which one is the most poignant? Mount chooses not to reduce a complex argument to a simple theory and deserves credit for that.
After finishing this book, I was reminded of an abstract theme David Cameron tried to communicate in the 2010 General Election – the Big Society. It now strikes me he was on to something here, but made the fatal mistake of believing all bottom-up civil society initiatives would come from the middle class. The local library maintained by private subscriptions and run by volunteers rather than Council Tax contributions – did he ever imagine this might come from the working class of a twenty-first century council estate? No, and with good reason. The prevailing view that the lower classes can only be maintained by the state is yet another victory for the re-writing of history and a further blow to the proud history of proletariat self-sufficiency. What’s surprising is that his mother’s cousin, the author of this book, could have told him this and guided him in his articulation of the real message – trust the masses to adapt and create their own institutions and see how they flourish.
Though I’ve never been animated by class consciousness, this book has opened my eyes to a culture that has been written out of history in favour of the all-encompassing narrative of the benevolent state taming the worst excesses of capitalism. But with their patriotism derided as infantile, their communities overrun by strange religions and alien traditions, their workplaces undercut by Eastern European labour, and their lifestyles regularly pilloried on national television it may be that there’s nobody left to reclaim the noble past. Who are the working class these days?
|Posted on August 4, 2015 at 6:55 PM||comments (16)|
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are many reason why the Weimar Republic is one of the most studied and debated periods in the annals of modern German history. As the epoch that followed the fall of the Kaiserreich and preceded the emergence of Hitler, Germany’s brief experiment with democracy was loathed by millions; even those that persisted were never more than a lukewarm combination of moderate Social Democrats, Catholics and petit-bourgeois business leaders. A granite foundation for upholding the rule of law didn’t stand a chance in this era of hyperinflation, austerity and global economic chaos.
The continuing fascination of this age is also one of the reasons why Hans Fallada’s novels have taken on a new importance outside his home country. Though Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse and most of Germany’s great writers went into exile in the 1930s, Fallada stayed behind while Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment tightened its grip on the arts. Yet the poor English translations of his works were almost as detrimental as the Third Reich’s demand for conformity, and it’s only the last decade that’s seen a surge in new activity from scholars and admirers outraged by Fallada’s lack of universal appreciation amongst the pantheon of literary legends. So where does A Small Circus fit into his back catalogue of re-discovered gems?
First of all, those looking for the quintessential chronicle of the age should read his 1938 novel, Iron Gustav. Nonetheless, A Small Circus should not be dismissed out of hand, either. Yes, it may be one of Fallada’s lesser known works, but his poignant wit, detached sense-of-humour and trademark portrayal of ‘the little man’ are all present here along with his remarkable ability to re-create the absurd Captain of Köpenick-type incidents that once saw a German shoemaker don a military uniform and fool an entire town into following his orders to arrest the local Mayor. (This 1906 event also did the rounds in the English press as a typical example of blind German obedience to men in military uniform.)
On this occasion Fallada’s prized charlatan is a young Berlin salesman who latches onto a small-time peasant march and sees his opportunity for fame and acclamation in provincial Pomerania. But when the demonstration gets out of hand a whole cast of mendacious journalists, conspiratorial politicians, restless businessmen and disorganised farmers clash in a low-stakes recrimination of parochial proportions. Berlin and the crumbling Reichstag of the Weimar Republic might as well be another country to the town’s inhabitants. Theirs is a district where live-changing events threaten but never materialise. Think of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, where town hall politics consume the self-important chattering classes and doyens of civic society, but go unnoticed in the wider world.
Characters like Mayor Gareis, the alcoholic journalist, Herr Stuff, and the peasant leader, Franz Reimers, are reminiscent of Emile Zola’s finest creations. Yet the large Dramatis Personae may be a bit overwhelming, and the dominance of character dialogue is even more unusual as a method of plot development. But it works. Before you know it you’ve read through 572 pages and experienced the ups and downs of Fallada’s protagonists as if every ego and ambition is your own. That’s an impressive achievement for such an unorthodox approach to a novel.
There’s also a sense that Fallada wrote A Small Circus with a film adaptation in mind. Each chapter transports you to the spectator’s armchair; imagine reading something that invokes the most dramatic moments in classic film. Few authors can do this, especially those that are economical with environmental settings and long on character dialogue. No wonder Fallada’s works are being re-appraised. Could anyone else pull this off?
Of course, it’s impossible to avoid hindsight and historical knowledge when reading anything from this period. Though Hitler and the Nazis get no more than the occasional mention as one of many factions vying for dominance of the German state, it’s too much to say A Small Circus is a far-sighted chronicle of a society breaking apart. Nothing in these pages suggest the Weimar Republic’s demise is inevitable or imminent – that’s something other reviewers have foisted on the book by reading back into history.
What you have here is the gripping town story, where the alehouses are full of cynical hacks and over-taxed farmers; where blackmail, infanticide, paedophilia and wife-beating bubble below the surface; and where Malthusian burdens force families to adapt and survive with admirable fortitude. It doesn’t matter whether this is Germany or Greenland – these tensions are omnipresent in the best literature, and A Small Circus is no exception.
|Posted on July 29, 2015 at 5:50 AM||comments (0)|
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Philip Coggan’s The Money Machine: How the City Works (1987) is staple reading for all undergraduate students of Economics, and his 2011 masterpiece, Paper Promises, also informed some of my research when writing my debut novel, The Dividing Lines. So what to make of his apocalyptic-titled The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy? Is it another classic in his repertoire of best-selling works?
The answer is ‘not quite.’ Following up on Paper Promises (an excellent study into the evolution of how money has become a dangerous debt pile of IOUs) was always going to be difficult. But one can’t help feeling Coggan is under pressured by his publisher, Penguin, to capitalise on his former success. Either that or he’s decided to write something to keep his name in the limelight as a kind of ‘in-between’ work until the next classic arrives.
Let’s start with the flaws: The first 130 pages are a lightweight history of Western democracy from the eighteenth-century to the present, the type of sweeping narrative that ends up being nothing more than a poor man’s rehash of the most general studies from this period. For all his faults, at least Niall Ferguson would have had the temerity to turn a few of the established views on their head to get your brain ticking. But here we get the narrative we’ve come to know without any extensive footnotes or obscure facts thrown into the mix for good measure. The growth of trade unionism, the failure of democracies to handle the Great Depression, the trente glorieuses and baby-boom era in western Europe, the stagflation of the 1970s and subsequent Conservative revolutions of the 1980s – we already know this story, but Coggan adds nothing new.
Fortunately, he manages to salvage the book when he focuses on his strengths – explaining the intricacies of economics in a crystal-clear language that has won him so much praise in the past. Look no further if you want a concise summary of how Quantitative Easing (QE) lowers borrowing costs, but also creates numerous problems for the future. Likewise, his 30 pages on the ongoing crisis in Greece and the collective inertia of the European Council of Ministers is as good as anything you’ll read on the subject.
But what is the message of The Last Vote? The title is misleading if you’re expecting another classic in the mould of The End of History and the Last Man, for this is really an incoherent reflection on western democracy – part history, part economics, and part current affairs for the knowledgeable person browsing through WH Smiths while waiting for a train to arrive. The usual gripes about the undue influence of money on modern politics (especially the US), the power of corporate lobbyists, the venality of the press, the lack of perspicacity in current economic policy and growing inequality between the ultra-rich and everybody else are all mentioned here.
But The Last Vote is just one of thousands of books that tackle these problems, yet is light on solutions. More referenda and direct democracy might be the way forward, nations will have to surrender some sovereignty if we’re to confront the global challenges of tomorrow, first-past-the-post and gerrymandering will have to go, etc., etc. You finish the book and realise you only need to read the last 22 pages for ‘A Way Forward’ on where we are going and what we can do to stop the slide into apathy and the tyranny of the finance industry. And herein lies the problem: this book would have been better as a serious work of history or even a general survey for those not familiar with the subject. At least then it would spare the author the trouble of having to make policy recommendations that live up to its epic title.
Nonetheless, there are positives. Coggan has a talent for keeping you interested with his lucid style of writing and ability to summarise complex arguments. At no point did I consider putting this book down; indeed I finished it one day. Furthermore, I cannot think of anyone other than Roger Scruton who’s better at describing how we’ve allowed our elected representatives to outsource policy and responsibility for vital decisions to unelected supra-national bodies. Take the European Union as the most egregious example: immigration in Britain is one of the three most pressing issues for voters, yet politicians in Westminster cannot do anything to prevent the free movement of labour from Eastern Europe because the UK is a signatory to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. No wonder voters disengage from the democratic process.
Of course, the democratic deficit in the EU is now even more apparent given recent events in Greece (unfortunately not mentioned here because the book came out in 2013). A hard-left Syriza government with a mandate to raise minimum wages, increase pensions, halt all privatisations of state assets and re-hire all public sector workers has been forced into the most brutal climb-down to swallow the bitter pill of austerity. And this despite the Greek Prime Minister winning a referendum from his own people to reject an earlier bail-out deal because it was too harsh. I have little sympathy with Tsipras’ disastrous brinkmanship tactics, but Greece is now effectively run by a paternalistic EU Commission that dictates supply side reforms and fiscal policy in exchange for keeping them in the Eurozone. How ironic that the land of Plato, the proponent of a council of wise men to keep check on the passion and populist emotions of the masses, is now at the heel of an identical institution.
One final success of this book should also get a mention. As a Conservative, I’ve believed over the years that a wealth tax is bad for the economy because it penalises entrepreneurs. But it’s now clear the ‘trickle-down’ effect of wealth-creation is a myth and is not backed up by any serious economic study. And is it really a good thing that the ultra-rich are getting a bigger share of wealth while wages stagnate for the average worker? As Coggan points out, ‘The ratio of American chief-executive compensations (including share options) to that of the average worker increased from 26.5 times in 1978 to a mind-blowing 411.3 times at the height of the technology boom: it was still 209.4 times in 2011.’ Other works have persuaded me to change my views on the regressive impact of taxation on wealth, but Coggan has given me the surest evidence yet that I’ve been wrong to go along with the Chicago School these last few years.
Even though The Last Vote may not deliver on its potential, it’s still worth a read, and I’ve no doubt Coggan’s next work will be another classic. In the meantime, buy this book before your next arduous train journey or international flight beckons - it will prove a welcome distraction from the boredom, even if it doesn't quite hit the mark.
|Posted on July 27, 2015 at 8:00 PM||comments (309)|
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There’s nothing better than browsing through a bookshop hoping to find something that catches your attention. Imagine the scene: I’m in Cambridge Waterstones, the display tables are furnished with every Penguin twentieth-century classic imaginable, and a bespectacled young lady is distracting me with a gluttonous glare that tells me she would like to read every book in here if only people would leave her alone for the next one hundred years. At the back of my mind I have a vague idea to look for something Japanese, but don’t ask me why because I don’t know. Yoko Ogawa is not a name I’m familiar with, but the author biography tells me she’s won every major Japanese literary award on the circuit. Okay, that’ll do for me.
Fast forward sixteen hours and I’m still mesmerised by what I’ve just read.
Narrating events in this stunning novella is Mari, a compliant and dutiful daughter who helps her Mother run the family hotel in an unnamed Japanese coastal town. One evening she witnesses a prostitute being chucked out of her room by a mysterious punter and is drawn to the commanding voice coming from behind the door. Who is this man and why is he not embarrassed or ashamed in front of the other guests? Seeing him a week later in town she decides to follow him, but is flustered when he realises her game. A friendship soon develops, but lurking in the back of her mind is a fantasy: does she have a latent desire to be overmastered and subjugated by this sensitive man who spends his life translating Russian novels on the island across the shore?
The closest literary comparisons are Angela Carter, Pauline Reage and Georges Bataille, but this is original in the extreme. Mari is a sociopathic enigma, uncomfortable with her good looks, and incapable of forming human relationships. In the classic exploration of the Oedipus Complex she laments the passing of her alcoholic father and detests her mother’s bossy nature and domineering ways. The daily torment of having her mother insist on combing her hair in camellia oil is more humiliating than the sexual depravity she experiences later on with the translator. And her mother is not slow to play up her daughter’s pretty face to get more tips from her clients, even mentioning the attention she once got from a sculptor. ‘Mother has a thousand ways to brag about my looks, but half of them are lies. The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me.’ After a brutal but enjoyable defiling at the hands of her new friend she takes comfort knowing that Mother’s ‘pretty little Mari had become the ugliest person in the whole world.’
Yet behind the rape-fantasies and desire for a father-figure, is a permeating loneliness and human longing that underpins the tone of the novel. The fact this is even possible tells you all you need to know about the quality of the writing. Each warped reality, every violent desire, the strangest coincidences and most dramatic encounters are perfectly illustrated in one paragraph where most writers would need three pages to set the tone. You’ll not find an exclamation mark anywhere or a solipsistic venture into the stream of consciousness. Nothing is melodramatic or climatic in Mari’s world, but it’s a world brought to life by some of the most vivid descriptions committed to paper. A scene at the sea shore with the translator captures the sound and feel of the environment with stunning effect: ‘We stared out at the sea in silence, more at ease with each other than before – as if the silence had become a soft veil covering the two of us. The waves crashed at our feet. Shorebirds cried out in the distance.’ Such beautiful prose. Later on she notes how ‘the whip played these notes on my body, contracting the organs or bones concealed beneath the skin,’ as she enjoys being fustigated by her lover. ‘I would never have believed that I could make such fascinating sounds, as though the whip were releasing wells of music from the deepest cavities in my body.’ Every line is pure poetry, an ode to the humility and beauty of self-induced suffering.
Some people may find the masochism running through this book a bit too disturbing. Others will wince at the absurdity of Mari’s sexual servitude and gasp at the degrading commands issued by the translator. ('Put my socks on with your hands tied behind your back' – imagine that scene brought to life on film.) But in defence of the author, there’s no way Yoko Ogawa is propagating the myth that women enjoy rape. This is a story about an isolated seventeen-year-old girl, a disturbed individual who carries the burden of self-hatred and pines for a paternal figure to rescue her from a mundane life.
Perhaps underneath us all is a dark side we don’t know or try to supress, and this reality is what scares us most. Yet unlike most writers, Yoko Ogawa has that rare talent to awaken the demon inside and knows how to present it in the most daring message of lambent beauty.
|Posted on July 27, 2015 at 11:20 AM||comments (188)|
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How does QE export inflation from the US to China and cripple Brazil’s export market? Can the dollar survive as a fiat currency or will it have to be backed by a commodity once again? Why has the Federal Reserve failed on every level since 1913? How might enemy nations bring down the dollar?
These questions are all answered in this alarming book written by former Investment Banker and Risk Manager, James Rickards, who believes the US dollar cannot survive in its current format.
But first, let’s start with the background to the theory. Since 2010 the world has descended into Currency War III, following the two catastrophic conflagrations of 1919-1936 and 1967-1987. In the first war Britain, France and the US ripped up the rules of the International Gold Exchange Standard and tried to gain an advantage by devaluing their currencies for export advantage; in the second conflict, the US Dollar came under speculative attack during the Vietnam War as the Fed printed more paper money far beyond its gold liabilities to creditor nations. Alas the current international system of free-floating currencies came into being, propped up by a Dollar now issued in fiat by the Treasury and backed by the printing press at the Federal Reserve. Instead of a stable store of value we now have a potential Ponzi scheme of IOUs sloshing around the world economy that can be dumped at any time by a combination of geo-political factors driven by Russia (the world’s most powerful energy exporter) and China (the world’s leading industrial exporter).
Rickards has clearly written a thought-provoking book designed to challenge your preconceptions on the international currency markets, but Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crisis is also a welcome history of twentieth century monetary policy and an excellent introduction to the basic economics of trade amongst nations. As such there’s no need to do any background reading for those not familiar with the classic Gold Standard c.1871-1914 as Rickards is articulate and skilled in the use of analogies. Indeed, this will be a refreshing read for undergraduates who’ve not touched this subject since University.
However, as the premise underlying this book is based on advantages gained by currency depreciation, I will illustrate here how a nation can gain an export advantage by devaluing its currency, taking the Pound (GBP) as an example.
In July 2014 the GBP> EUR rate was 1.2642, meaning £100,000 would buy you €126,420 on the exchange. Fast forward to July 2015 and the GBP> EUR rate is now 1.40, meaning the same £100,000 buys you €140,000. Therefore, a British manufacturer importing machinery from Germany will make a saving of 13,580 EUR on the exchange compared with last year. In this case, the rate favours EU nations exporting their goods to Britain as the Euro has depreciated against the Pound and made their goods more desirable in foreign markets (e.g. cheaper to buy).
But the Eurozone is a benign example and is not an offender of deliberate devaluation. In Rickards’ view, the real villain is his home country, the United States. Since FDR’s confiscation of gold from US citizens in 1933 and to Richard Nixon’s forced adjustment of a 12% currency appreciation on her western partners in 1971, America has constantly abused its position as the home of the world’s reserve currency. This can be seen in how QE2 has exported inflation to China. But how has this happened?
To maintain its currency peg with the US, China has to print one new paper note for every additional USD it receives. Yet this will only increase when Chinese merchants paid in dollars surrender their hard currency to the People’s Bank of China in exchange for newly printed Yuan (CNY). The logic is simple and the battle lines are drawn when you consider the effect and purpose of QE: we’ll flood you with surplus dollars if you don’t adjust your under-valued currency.
Indeed, Timothy Geithner disguised this in the language of ‘adjustment’ rather than a deliberate devaluation and enrolled the G20 behind his cause for a re-balancing of the economy in 2010. As Rickards, points out, though, this policy had a hidden agenda: ‘China would have to make all of the adjustments, with regard to their currency, their social safety net and twenty-five hundred years of Confucian culture, while the United States would do nothing and reap the benefits of increased net exports to a fast-growing internal Chinese market.’ In other words, the high savings rate in China would have to be adjusted in favour of more domestic consumption. Why? Because the US economy had binged on credit and leveraged itself to the brink – consumption could no longer drive US growth. Likewise, a huge trade deficit and government bailout of the banking system left the state with no money; therefore, government spending and investment were out of the equation. So what remained? Why, of course, export growth spurred on by currency devaluation.
But surely China, as the nation that props up America’s trade deficit, has a lot to lose if the Dollar collapses? Maybe, but those who see a mutually assured destruction in the Sino-American relationship might need to think again. Yes, China owns up to $920 billion of US Treasury Bills and will suffer catastrophic losses if the US devalues these holdings. But Rickards sees an escape route for Beijing: China could easily swap the long-term maturities for short-term redemptions and call in the liabilities. That would be a massive drain on the US Treasury.
Fortunately, the world is starting to wake up to the fragility of the dollar reserve system and alternatives are being explored, none of which are favourable to the US. Plans are underway for the IMF to issue their own Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currency backed up by a liquid bond market, with Primary dealers ready and the G20 interested in going ahead. It might never get off the ground, but it’s better than watching Russia refuse USD as a currency of exchange for their oil and gas deposits. One move in the status quo might bring China closer, as is already happening in Sino-Russian relations. The figures speak for themselves: US Dollars now make up less than 65% of total global currency reserves and look set to fall further as nations diversify their holdings.
So what does Rickards propose? In his opinion, the US should return to the Gold Standard, whereby the quantity of USD in circulation should always be backed by a gold reserve of 40%. As the annual net increase in gold never exceeds 1.5% and average economic growth is closer to 3.5%, the money supply can expand by 1.5% to combat the mild deflation that would follow. Given the need to fix the convertibility price, he proposes a peg of £7500 per ounce of Gold, mainly to accommodate China, which has abundant paper dollars but less gold. Therefore, no government could expand the money supply without a corresponding increase in the stock of gold except in exceptional circumstances.
There’s no doubt it would do the trick of removing currency devaluation as a US policy and tame price swings, but is this wishful thinking rather than global reality? After all, how difficult is it to get the major industrial nations together to cut carbon emissions? Furthermore, is it even possible in the age of mass democracy to operate such a disciplined system of exchange? Any populist left-wing party could clean up in national elections during a recession with the simple promise to revert to devaluation when times are hard. The fact that Britain could maintain a stable monetary policy during the nineteenth century Gold Standard is because trades unions, workers and voters had no say when wages and prices were forced down by the harsh internal adjustment necessary to protect a fixed exchange rate. It’s hard to imagine any western democracy sticking to the rules when political considerations (e.g. keeping people in work and out of soup kitchens) take precedence over economic science. No highly-educated electorate will vote for subservience to the principles of the price-specie flow mechanism when times are tough.
Nevertheless, beyond the economics, Rickards also demonstrates a flair for understanding the political development of the last seven years. For instance, he believes the G20 has now become a platform for the US to force a re-balancing of the economy on surplus nations while the IMF is close to resembling a de facto central bank with its own currency (SDR). But none of these concerns compare to the ineptitude of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which has constantly failed on price stability, unemployment and regulation. Though it may sound bitter, can we argue with Rickards that the Fed was seemingly created to save the major banks from themselves rather than to act as a lender of last resort?
This won’t be the last book you read on the subject of pending economic collapse, but Rickards has set the standard for the debate and might one day the be the reluctant prophet of doom. Can anyone argue that the USD is sustainable in its current guise?
|Posted on July 25, 2015 at 7:25 AM||comments (101)|
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Bonfire of the Vanities had the fortune of being released in the shadow of the 1987 Stock Market Crash and is now seen as the quintessential novel of the Reagan age for its portrayal of the fabulous wealth and social division that grew out of it. American Psycho and Martin Amis’ Money might also lay claim to this privilege, but the zeitgeist bestows its name on those who cultivate the spirit of the times like a cunning friend.
If Oliver Stone left us with the legendary Gordon Gekko from this era, Tom Wolfe must surely take credit for his more refined and likeable equivalent in Sherman McCoy. As a bond trader on Wall Street, our WASP protagonist is a self-declared Master of the Universe pinning his hopes on the price of gold while his trading desk piles up with French Treasury Bonds (known as the Giscard Bonds after the former French President). A daring short-selling position on the French Franc should guarantee a fool-proof investment if inflation doesn’t do the job for him; and with his mistress, his Park Avenue apartment, a beautiful wife and precocious six-year old daughter, what could possibly intrude upon his blissful life?
The answer is the Bronx, the former Jewish Canaan now affected by the ‘white flight’ of its dynamic Yiddish population in the 1960s. This is the place where the ‘have-nots’ left behind in the Black Projects and Puerta Rican diaspora live a separate existence from mainstream society; where car-jackings, crack-dealing, street muggings, and unemployment blight every neighbourhood. A Sherman McCoy taking an accidental wrong-turning through here in a Mercedes is sure to be slain in the jungle. Or at least this is the perception of those who live in a comfortable bubble of wealth and privilege on Park Avenue. Whether Sherman and his mistress are defending themselves from two black delinquents is beside the point – the possibility of danger and fear of a mythical stereotype is enough to create panic when they find themselves face-to-face with the underclass. The hit-and-run that follows is an instinctive gamble on survival.
You’ll soon learn to grimace, squirm, and laugh with your nerves shot to pieces on every page of this book. The paranoia of those in the District Attorney’s office who expect to be ambushed by the residents of the Bronx on their daily commute to work will leave you perspiring. Wolfe doesn’t just tell you what it’s like to be walking amongst these people; he shows you. This is writing at its best – pulsating with danger, leaving you short of breath. It’s not just the characters that are two blocks away from an aggravated assault. Wolfe reminds you that New York was only one notch below Johannesburg for street crime in the 1980s.
But the main theme running through The Bonfire of the Vanities is the fragility of co-existence. Once you strip a divided city to its core of Irish, Jewish, Italian, WASP and Blacks platoons, you have a primordial world where the status quo can only be maintained by cynical politics and disingenuous manoeuvring. Enter Reverend Bacon, the self-appointed leader of the Black Projects and champion of the black underclass. His fiefdom holds the balance of power in the next Mayoral elections; the ‘power structure’ will no longer be pitching their campaign at the residents of White New York if they want re-election. Likewise, Lawrence Kramer, the disillusioned Assistant DA bored to death by an endless line of Afro-American and Puerta Rican felons will not pass up the chance of fame, not when confronted by the case all prosecutors in the Bronx cry out for – the Great White Defendant. Was Sherman defending himself from assault? Did the victim, Henry lamb, have the potential to be the first College graduate from the Poe Projects? Does the Bronx District Attorney need to sacrifice a Wall Street financier to seal his own re-election? Is the demand for justice more important that the truth?
Peter Fallow, the English journalist nursing more hangovers than the entire population of Glasgow, is perhaps the most interesting of Wolfe’s characters and best placed to answer these questions. Brought to the Big Apple as a modern day Evelyn Waugh searching for the Vile Bodies of the New York social circuit, Fallow is as disinterested as anyone when a story lands on his lap about a black kid in a coma. The perceived social prejudice of the police and DA Office is irrelevant. This story is his opportunity to climb out of the debt-ridden ranks of the dilettante English colony blagging their way through Park Avenue dinner parties. His salvation from the gossip columns and onto the front page of the broadsheets is within grasp.
With characters like these it’s no surprise Wolfe has been criticised for having a cynical view of humanity. The educated middles classes shut out from the new money are all hustling for a leg-up in the world, each one convinced of their own importance yet distraught no one acknowledges their tireless contribution to society. This vindictive pursuit of recognition is so bitter because the stakes are so low. And herein lies another triumph of The Bonfire of the Vanities – the return of Willy Lomas, that great American tragedy, the man who cannot escape his innocuous existence or rise above mediocrity. In other words, the original anti-hero who should have no right to be sanctimonious, yet invites our sympathy.
The best novels can stretch beyond 700 pages without a blink of the eye, but this may also be why The Bonfire of the Vanities falls just short of The Naked and the Dead or Rabbit, Run. There’s no doubt it’s a stunning read, but it could have done with some editing. The excessive use of exclamation marks is forgivable, but the microscopic descriptions of Sherman’s New York apartment and every other social setting is bordering on tedious. As a result the reader is confronted with pages that should never have survived the first draft. Perhaps we can blame The New York Times for this, for Wolfe was writing on demand and being measured in output. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that quantity takes precedence here.
Nonetheless, The Bonfire of the Vanities deserves its place in the pantheon of contemporary classics and no minor quibbles about editing can disguise its ambition and achievement. This is a bona fide twentieth century classic.
|Posted on July 15, 2015 at 6:00 PM||comments (0)|
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
All seminal works in the field of Economics and Social Science rely on a grand theory to capture the public imagination while answering to the University Professors lurking in the background with sharpened knives. This balancing act is often skewed too heavily in favour of academia, and the books end up appealing to a narrow circle of experts while the message and ambition remain beyond the reach of most people.
Thomas Piketty is aware of this and has made it his priority to open up the issues of wealth distribution and capital accumulation to a reading public with only the faintest interest in Politics and Current Affairs. And this is good news if you want to keep abreast of economic theories and historical developments without drowning in a sea of econometric data and sterile writing. Is there anything more tedious than an academic paper written by an obscure Professor addressing an audience of perhaps only 100 fellow scholars?
So let’s start with the important part – the theory underpinning this book. According to Piketty, the capital/ income ratio for each of the developed nations is returning to the extreme ‘inegalitarian’ levels last seen on the verge of World War One, when the richest 10% in countries like Britain and France owned 90% of all capital stock and took in up to 60% of all national income. Why is this happening again? Piketty believes low demographic growth forecasts throughout the rest of the twenty-first century combined with an expected global economic growth rate of 1% will result in capital returns increasing by as much as six or seven times the average national income. As this capital wealth becomes more concentrated on inheritance, only the super-rich will be in a position to live as dilettante rentiers while the rest of us see our income fall as a share of national output.
The theory sounds impressive and the statistics appear to back this up, but the author’s solutions are clearly from the far-left. No serious Economist believes these days that protecting a super-rich elite from relatively high taxes on capital and income is necessary to maintain a ‘trickle-down’ share of wealth for the benefit of the rest of society. But millions of parsimonious middle-class people still vote for political parties that promise lower taxes for the wealthy minority even though this will disadvantage their own prospects. Are these people stupid or deluded? From a homo economicos point of view this is irrational, but the rights and wrongs of income distribution and private property cannot be dismissed on empirical data alone. In fact, all high civilisations take inequality as an accepted fact – the question is what level of inequality are we prepared to tolerate before social tensions reach breaking point?
Piketty expects you to be outraged by the current inequality in the capitalist world (and with good reason when you see his comprehensive statistics), but his solution to impose a progressive global tax on the world’s capital stock is unrealistic. Can anyone envisage an era where all nations co-operate to enforce such a tax? Piketty admits this is indeed utopian, but sees no other way to re-balance a trend that can only get worse.
Likewise, his recommendations on eliminating high public debt in the developed world are just as controversial. Why don’t struggling countries pursue an inflation target of 5% to erode the real value of their liabilities over a period of ten years? The rich should be paying taxes, not lending to the state for an easy return of interest on government bonds. And this is a persuasive argument if you don’t mind eliminating the rentier class, as happened in France and most other Western European countries after World War Two depleted capital stocks to record lows. (Naturally, Piketty laments the return of this leisure class since 1990.)
There’s no doubt this book is ambitious in scope and subtle in its iconoclasm, and it’s refreshing how the author uses case studies from the classic literary works of Balzac and Jane Austen to enliven the statistics from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. But perhaps the most provocative studies are reserved for the Anglo-Saxon nations where the ‘Conservative Revolution’ of the 1980s is seen as an irreversible development in the political culture of Britain and the US. Piketty is keen to remind us that these two countries were the first to pioneer the idea of a progressive wealth tax on ‘unearned income’ and inheritance; indeed America at the turn of the twentieth century was uneasy with the prospect of becoming more like the unequal societies of Europe. This is certainly at odds with the modern day image of meritocratic capitalism espoused by these two nations on the world stage today.
Furthermore, in his view France, Germany, Italy and Japan did not overtake the Anglo-Saxon economies in c.1945-1975, but simply caught up again once they’d started to accumulate an abundance of untapped capital following the shocks of war. This is just as much a history survey as an economic tract, and the breadth of study is impressive. However, it’s worth taking Piketty’s advice in the Introduction to skip over ‘Part Two: The Dynamics of the Capital/ Income Ratio.’ This section is aimed at fellow Economists and for understandable reasons has to elaborate on the quantitative methods used to produce the statistics. Though it might be fascinating for some to learn about the impact of capital depreciation calculations on national income, it’s can be a bit tedious when it stretches over 100 pages, even if it’s essential for the author to maintain intellectual credibility with his academic detractors.
Of course, for the layman, there’s always an implicit level of trust when reading the works of a respected Professor. Unless you want to comb through the footnotes and exhaustive Bibliography, you’ll have to acknowledge that the figures are accurate. This can be dangerous if we take an example from the early twentieth century when Socialism was at the forefront of economic thought and sweeping all before it. At the time, a small grouping of arch-capitalist Economists now known as the ‘Austria School’ challenged the confident assumptions of the dominant Socialists that a centrally-planned economy could allocate resources as efficiently as a market system. The latter never gave a satisfactory response or any equations to prove their claims, but for fifty years the Marxists carried the day in mainstream and academic circles when just about everybody could paraphrase the need ‘to appropriate the ownership and means of production for the proletariat’ as just one of many empty phrases stripped of any real meaning. There’s every chance Piketty’s argument might carry the day, but will the masses be aware if somebody challenges his capital/ income ratio calculations?
The point is platitudes and soundbites appeal to the imagination more than sound scholarship, and Piketty is a Godsend to the far-left. His welcome scepticism of classical orthodoxy will no doubt give them hope after their complete rejection from the field of Economics since the fall of the Soviet Union, and it won’t be long until you hear his ideas recycled by Social Democrats and Socialists everywhere.
So do yourself a favour and read this book before it seeps into every day political discourse. It may not be the best read in the world, but you can’t fault its intellectual ambition.